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Democrats push for $17 minimum wage by 2028

Brushing past criticism, congressional Democrats argued that current federal wage standards leave millions of U.S. workers living in poverty.

WASHINGTON (CN) — More than a decade after Congress last raised the federal minimum wage, lawmakers on Tuesday rolled out legislation that, if made law, would significantly increase the legal baseline for pay across the country.

Federal minimum wage currently sits at just $7.25 an hour, a figure that was set by an act of Congress in 2009. Although states are free to increase the wage floor within their borders, minimum-wage workers in at least a dozen states are compensated using the federal baseline.

For congressional Democrats, that’s unacceptable.

“No one working full-time in America should live in poverty,” said Democratic Virginia Representative Bobby Scott during an event Tuesday at which lawmakers unveiled the newest version of the Raise the Wage Act, a bill aimed at increasing the federal minimum wage to $17 an hour.

“After more than a decade without an increase in the federal minimum wage — the longest stretch in history — roughly one in every eight U.S. workers is paid wages that leave them in poverty, even when working full-time and year-round,” said Scott, who is sponsoring the legislation. A worker earning minimum wage can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country, the lawmaker added.

If made law, Scott’s bill would gradually increase the minimum wage to $17 over a five-year period ending in 2028. The measure would also guarantee that tipped workers, youth workers and workers with disabilities are also paid the full federal minimum wage, the Virginia Democrat said. The bill would further hitch the minimum wage to median pay in the U.S. to ensure that the federal baseline keeps up with the cost of living.

It’s not the first time Scott has tried to raise the federal minimum wage. Democrats in 2021 attempted to get language from similar legislation included in Congress’ trillion-dollar Covid-19 relief bill, but the Senate parliamentarian ruled that lawmakers could not vote on the provision — which would have seen minimum wage hiked to $15 by 2025.

Things are even more dire now than they were two years ago, Democrats said Tuesday. Frances Holmes, an advocate for increased minimum wage and an employee at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, said that she can no longer afford her house because her compensation hasn’t kept up with increased rent prices and utility costs.

“It’s really not good for me,” Holmes said. “What I’m proposing is that everyone in Congress, everyone in the Senate pass the Raise the Wage bill for me and for workers like me.”

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who backs the bill, said that Democrats were committed to getting an increased minimum wage enshrined into law.

“We want to make clear that greed is not good,” said Jeffries, invoking the infamous line delivered by Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film “Wall Street.” “We believe in an economy that works for everyday Americans, not an economy for the wealthy, the well-off and well-connected.”

The Democratic lawmakers also pushed back on criticism from opponents of minimum wage reform, including some Republicans, who argue that raising federally mandated base pay could harm the economy and affect consumer prices.

“Each time we propose raising the minimum wage, we have the same excuses about why workers must continue to scrape by on poverty-level wages,” Scott said. “We cannot allow our policy decisions to be guided by the fearmongering that has undercut workers for decades.”

Increasing the minimum wage will put more money in the pockets of workers who will in turn inject that cash into the local community, the Virginia lawmaker said.

Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal pointed to the $15 minimum wage in Seattle, made law in 2014, as an example that such a policy could work at scale.

“At that time, we were told that this made no sense,” Jayapal said, “that we were progressives, and that we were too idealistic. What we know now is that workers get a higher wage, they have more money to spend, and they spend it in the community.”

Aaron Seyedian, owner of Well-Paid Maids, a cleaning company that pays its employees a minimum of $23 an hour, said that increased wages were an investment in his staff that has led to higher productivity and lower employee turnover.

“Profitability doesn’t have to come from squeezing your staff,” Seyedian said. “It can come from productivity, capacity and growth. Paying a living wage has helped my business succeed and grow.”

Jayapal, meanwhile, applauded both Democratic and Republican states for increasing their minimum wages via ballot measures but said such a raise needed to be the federal standard.

“It should not be that your wage depends on where you live,” she argued.

“The American people have reached a clear consensus, across the political spectrum,” Scott said, “and around the country, people are repeatedly demonstrating their overwhelming support for raising the minimum wage.”

A spokesperson for Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, who chairs the House workforce panel where Scott's bill may end up, did not immediately return a request for comment. A spokesperson for Senate workforce committee ranking member Bill Cassidy was also not immediately available for comment.

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Categories / Consumers, Economy, Government, Politics

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