News Column

Labor Secretary Visits Charlotte to Push for Minimum Wage Increase

April 4,2 2013

Deon Roberts

Charlotte played a role Wednesday in the Obama administration's effort to raise the federal minimum wage when the acting U.S. Secretary of Labor made a stop in the city to meet with struggling workers as part of a multicity campaign.

During a Labor Department-organized round-table event at First Baptist Church-West, Seth Harris heard from Charlotteans like Taheerah Harris.

Harris, a 35-year-old single woman who said she earns $9 an hour working for a collections agency on Briar Creek Road, said she'd like to own a house one day.

"But I don't see it," she said.

Charlotte became one of the dozen or so cities where the administration has held such events since President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, called for raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25.

Two bills were introduced last month in Congress to raise the minimum wage, one by Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, the other by Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California.

Harris told the attendees at the Wednesday afternoon event that he wanted to hear about how they've tried to get by making at or near the minimum wage. He told them that while $9 an hour wouldn't put them on "easy street," it would give them "a little bit of breathing room."

Democratic Mayor Anthony Foxx, who sat to Harris' left, often nodding in agreement with what Harris said, was among the handful of local elected officials at the event.

"I want to thank you and the president for drawing attention to this," said Foxx, who, according to a recent Bloomberg News story citing two people familiar with the matter, is being considered by Obama for transportation secretary.

"We know that communities across Charlotte have been hit hard by the recession," Foxx said. "President Obama ran a campaign last fall about building from the middle class out and helping people who were trying to get into the middle class to find a pathway there."

Harris said if the minimum wage were raised to $9 an hour, a full-time minimum wage worker would make $3,500 more per year. A total of 557,000 workers in North Carolina "would directly benefit from that proposal," he said.

Also, he said, "People who are currently earning $9 an hour or slightly above would also benefit, because the experience that we've had in the past is when the minimum wage goes, up the floor rises; everything in the room rises along with it."

Obama, Harris added, wants to "lift people out of poverty" by raising the minimum wage.

Harris, the collections agency worker, said she wants to be a math teacher, possibly at the high school or middle school level. To that end, she said, she's attending Central Piedmont Community College, where she plans to earn an associate degree and then enroll at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

She said living off $9 an hour has been tough for her.

"I'm trying to lose weight, eat right," she said. "There's just no play money."

Dominique Pendleton, 23, who also was invited to the round-table discussion, said he's finding it hard to save money while making $7.25 at a Chick-fil-A on Rivergate Parkway, a job he started in August.

Pendleton said he lives with his widowed mother in Charlotte and does what he can to help pay her bills. His mother works for a doctor's office. But she doesn't earn enough since his father died last year, he said, adding that their home is in the process of being repossessed.

Pendleton said he's going to CPCC, where he hopes to get an associate degree and then attend UNCC.

The federal minimum wage was last increased in 2009, when it was $6.55. North Carolina is one of 22 states where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Although gridlock is a regular occurrence in Washington, D.C., Harris pointed out that the minimum wage has been increased in the past because "it often has bipartisan support."

Polls, he said, show 3-to-1 support among Americans for an increase.

Some critics of raising the minimum wage say that it would result in employers laying off workers because of the higher overhead costs, an argument that the labor secretary brought up Wednesday. He said that "independent" economists have found in studying past increases to the minimum wage over the past 75 years that a "moderate" increase does not lead to job loss.

That was among the "myths" Harris told the attendees he wanted to talk about in the hopes he might "help arm you with some arguments" for raising the minimum wage.



Source: (c)2013 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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