U.S. Department of Labor pushes for minimum wage increase

The acting U.S. secretary of labor, Seth Harris, believes enough Americans back an increase in the minimum wage strongly enough that Congress will raise it next year.

Harris, who will hold a panel discussion Thursday at Kansas City’s Full Employment Council, said in a phone interview that he detects “overwhelming” public opposition to the business lobbies that fight minimum wage increases.

“There are some angry people and people with strong ideologies who believe the government shouldn’t regulate anything,” Harris said Wednesday. “But that was settled 75 years ago with the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the minimum wage has increased about two dozen times since then.”

Harris said minimum wage increases are needed to allow workers to meet increased living costs and pay their bills. The last federal increase was four years ago.

When the wage floor is raised slowly and moderately, it helps, not hurts, the U.S. economy, which is dependent on consumer spending, he said.

The White House has proposed a minimum wage increase to at least $9 an hour from the current $7.25. The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 has been introduced in Congress to raise the federal wage floor incrementally to $10.10 by 2015 and to tie future increases to inflation.

Missouri, which already has a wage law with a cost-of-living index, increased the minimum wage in the state to $7.35 an hour on Jan. 1. Nine other states also raised their wage floors this year. The nation’s highest rate now is $9.19 an hour in Washington. The federal minimum applies for most workers in Kansas.

Harris, a law professor who previously worked in the U.S. Department of Labor under labor secretaries Robert Reich and Alexis Herman, has been acting head of the department since Hilda Solis resigned earlier this year. He had returned to the department as a deputy secretary in 2009.

He said he believes in the power of a livable wage.

“Low-wage earners turn around and spend their money in their communities,” Harris said. “More money for them means more money for small businesses and the economy as a whole.”

Harris said he disagrees with critics who believe that minimum wage earners are unskilled, unmotivated or uneducated and that they don’t deserve “handouts.”

He said he has met with many low-wage earners who are working on finishing high school or getting college degrees. Many, he said, are struggling to find jobs in their chosen professions or are working long term in important but low-paying careers such as home health and food service.

Eighty-five percent of small-business employers already are paying above the national minimum wage, Harris said. He said that when he talks to minimum wage workers around the country he hears mostly that they work for large corporations, “brand-name companies that everyone’s familiar with,” that can afford to pay more.

Business lobbying groups and think tanks such as the Employment Policies Institute oppose minimum wage increases on the grounds that they cause employers to cut jobs to afford the higher wage.

Harris said he also discounts the reaction from middle-income workers who complain that entry-level workers shouldn’t get a raise because they haven’t received one. He said that’s the challenge of public education — to show that a higher wage floor benefits all workers.

“It doesn’t help anyone to keep minimum wage workers from getting a raise,” he said.