Essential workers deserve essential wages
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America’s minimum wage and low-wage workers haven’t received a raise in over a decade — even as we celebrate them as essential.

COVID-19 threatens our hourly workforce from every angle. Low-wage workers have been the hardest hit by COVID-19 job losses. Their purchasing power has decreased, and the inflationary effect of necessary government spending and borrowing to fight the virus may lower it further. Millions of unemployed Americans are watching their utility, rent and credit card bills balloon, and don’t have a way of paying when the rent or mortgage finally comes due.

Low-wage workers are often among the most likely to contract the virus, and both our workplaces and the Trump administration are failing them by not meeting and enforcing adequate safety standards.

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Enough is enough: our essential workers deserve essential wages, and the easiest way to do that is by increasing the minimum wage.

I’ve long been a believer that our workers deserve a raise. When I was a state legislator in North Carolina, I led the bill that gave our state its last minimum wage increase. Last year, I voted for the Raise the Wage Act, which the Senate should bring to the floor for a vote immediately.

The Raise the Wage Act would gradually increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour by 2025, and it phases out the subminimum wage for tipped workers, youth workers and Americans with disabilities. The need for a higher wage was evident then: according to pre-COVID employment numbers, over 30 million workers, including 151,400 in my district alone, would benefit from a minimum wage increase.

In the wake of the global pandemic, the importance of higher wages for essential workers should be self-evident. A higher minimum wage will close the wealth gap, help restart the economy and give workers fair pay for the labor they provide.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen the wealth gap grow. Billionaires have benefited from a stock market rally while millions on the other end of the spectrum have lost jobs. Unemployment help has been uneven; in some states, like mine, the base unemployment benefit is so low as to impoverish job seekers. The benefits aren’t enough for them to pay their current bills, much less the balloon payments looming on the horizon.

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Workers are going to need all the help they can get to dig out of the financial hole caused by COVID-19. In addition to continued unemployment assistance and economic stimulus payments, raising the minimum wage will help our workforce recover from the greatest health and economic crisis of our lifetimes. Our country cannot trap an entire generation of workers in debt and poverty; to do so would foreclose on the promise of everything we believe in as Americans.

The Raise the Wage Act will lift 1.3 million of our fellow citizens out of poverty, including 600,000 children. As a 40-year educator, child poverty and child hunger has always been at the forefront of my mind. In Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, where I live, there are 23 schools with food pantries for food-insecure students and families — and all of them were established before COVID-19.

Additionally, we already have thousands of homeless and housing-insecure students in our school district alone. I cannot fathom the consequences of failing to act, letting even more children fall into poverty due to the pandemic, especially as parents, teachers and students face the challenge of going to school during COVID-19.

Raising the wage will not only lift families out of poverty, it will help restart our economy. In this time of economic uncertainty, a boost to wages will increase consumer confidence and consumer spending, both of which have lagged due to the pandemic. The traditional conservative argument that raising the minimum wage will decrease the number of available jobs rings hollow given how many jobs will be created as we leave the pandemic.

Finally, we have a moral obligation to accurately value the labor of low-wage workers. If we call workers essential in word but not in deed — how we compensate these workers — what good is the title “essential?” These workers are taking risks above and beyond what we have asked of others. From health care heroes and first responders to bus drivers and retail workers, the labor market has not treated our hourly workers fairly. It’s time to change that.

Raising the wage is key to solving the inequity of the gender pay gap for women and especially women of color. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this bill will provide over 23 million women — many of whom are the primary breadwinners in their households — with a raise. As someone whose mother cleaned houses so I could go to college, I know how hard low-wage earning women work. They deserve equal pay for equal work, too.

Essential workers deserve essential wages. Anything less threatens the very fabric of our country, and the promise of the American dream. The Senate should take up and pass the Raise the Wage Act now.

Adams represents North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District, which includes parts of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. She is the chair of the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.