Sara Fearrington, a North Carolina waitress, joined the Fight for $15 campaign two years ago. A server at a Durham Waffle House, her take-home pay fluctuates between $350 and $450 a week, leaving her struggling to pay bills every month. She voted for Joe Biden, who had pledged to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. It was the first time Fearrington, who is 44, had ever voted in a presidential election.
“It would mean everything. It would create stability for my household,” she said of the impact that a higher wage could have on her and her family of five, which includes her husband, who suffers from a rare lung condition, and a granddaughter who has asthma.
The Democrats will need her support for their US Senate nominee next year if they are to maintain and strengthen their tenuous hold on the upper chamber. Some of 2022’s hotly contested Senate races are expected to play out in low-wage regions like Fearrington’s home state.
The purple states of North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have rock-bottom minimum wages of just $7.25 per hour – the current federal minimum. Georgia, where the Democrat Raphael Warnock will fight to hold on to the Senate seat he wrested from the Republican senator Kelly Loeffler in November, abides by the federal minimum wage, even though the one it has on the books is $5.15. Recent polling suggests Republicans could gain a seat in New Hampshire, another low-minimum-wage state, where the Democratic senator Maggie Hassan is facing a potential challenge from the state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu.
The federal minimum wage has not increased from $7.25 since 2009, and for 21 states in the country the minimum wage law that governs employers is no higher than the federal minimum. Fearrington earns an hourly wage of just $3.10 an hour as a tipped worker, making her income unpredictable.
Biden had hoped to include a $15-an-hour minimum wage increase in his $1.9tn economic stimulus package, which is expected to pass this week, and would also gradually phase out the sub-minimum wages for tipped workers like Fearrington. But prospects for the minimum wage provision evaporated after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the wage hike could not remain in the budget reconciliation bill where Democrats had placed it in order to avoid a Republican-led filibuster they lacked the votes to override.
Progressives inside and outside Congress pressured Senate Democrats and the Biden administration to override the parliamentarian and take the matter to a vote.
“Then, at least, it’s a public conversation, where people are fighting for what they said they were going to fight for, for the poor and low-income people who turned out in record numbers in this past election,” said the Rev Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the National Poor People’s Campaign.
Whether such a conversation ever takes place is a growing concern to progressives and a source of discord within the coalition that brought Biden to the White House – at a moment when the battered US economy stands at a crossroads. On Friday, the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders made an 11th-hour effort to reinsert the provision into the stimulus package. Eight Democrats crossed over to vote it down, including two senators from his neighboring state, New Hampshire.
Delivering a minimum wage increase before the midterm elections would give bragging rights to Democratic senatorial candidates in low-minimum-wage states. In North Carolina, 33% of workers would experience an increase in wages. Once the raise was fully implemented, the average annual benefit to a North Carolina worker who works year round would be $4,065, according to Capital & Main’s analysis of data released by the non-profit Economic Policy Institute in a recent study. Workers in other states would reap similar benefits.
The ruling by the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, prompted online protests by liberal swing-state candidates in Pennsylvania, including the lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, who is seeking the US Senate seat occupied by retiring the Republican Pat Toomey.
“Since the Senate parliamentarian won’t allow a $15 minimum wage to go through reconciliation, then it’s time to end the filibuster and raise the minimum wage,” Fetterman said in a statement. Biden, who generally supports the traditions of the Senate, is coming under increasing pressure to end the filibuster in order to deliver on his agenda.
Delivering a minimum wage hike to voters – or at least fighting tooth and nail to get it passed – may also be key to keeping Biden’s fragile coalition together heading into the midterms. The failure to do so could also make for some fractious Democratic primaries. “Every single Dem who voted against a $15 minimum wage should be primaried,” said Krystal Ball, host of HillTV’s Rising.
Polls show strong support for a $15 minimum wage, especially among Democrats and independents. And a recent poll by the non-profit National Employment Law Project found that two-thirds of voters in battleground congressional districts supported gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, including 84% of Biden voters and 63% of non-college-educated white people.
The popularity of a minimum wage increase led to Republicans floating watered-down (and, mostly likely, doomed) proposals to hike the country’s base wage. Senator Mitt Romney and Senator Tom Cotton proposed a plan to increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour over four years that is tied to stepped-up immigration enforcement. On Friday, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, proposed a $15-an- hour minimum wage plan that would apply to businesses with annual revenue in excess of $1bn. Taxpayers, not the employer, would foot the bill for Hawley’s proposed increase.
Opponents of the proposed gradual increase to $15 an hour over five years – like the Business Roundtable, which represents CEOs of major US companies – have argued that wage increases should be calibrated to regional differences in the cost of living. But Ben Zipperer, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says $15 an hour makes sense as a wage floor and is even low when the cost of living is taken into account. In addition, the minimum wage would jump to $9.50 in the first year, well below its 1968 peak of just over $12 (when accounting for inflation).
“In 2021, virtually anywhere in the country, a single adult will need to be working at least full time and earn at least $16 an hour in order to meet their family budget,” says Zipperer.
Jim Wertz, chair of the Erie County Democratic party in Pennsylvania, argues that the Senate’s failure to pass the $15-an-hour minimum wage should push people to vote for more Democrats, not keep them from the polls.
“The reason we can’t get it done is because of a couple of centrist or right-leaning Democrats,” he said, referring to the West Virginia senator Joe Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona who have said they do not support such a large increase in the minimum wage and voted against Sanders’ failed attempt to restore the minimum wage hike to the stimulus bill.
Fearrington is not paying close attention to the byzantine rules of Congress or its politics. She lost two members of her extended family to Covid-19 this year, and to protect vulnerable members of her family, she spent Christmas and her birthday in isolation after she contracted the virus.
Still, she’s undeterred in her determination to vote in next year’s Senate race regardless of the outcome of this latest battle in DC. The Republican senator Richard Burr, who voted to convict Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, is retiring, leaving the seat open.
“I’m going to go for the Senate seat that’s going to listen to the mass majority of people that are saying we need this to help our society, our community and our economy – blue or red,” she said.
This article is published in partnership with the award-winning not-for-profit publication Capital and Main