When LaTonya Jones Costa goes to work, her shift can start at a deathbed. It happened that way in December, when the home health aide arrived at the residence of a much-loved client. The woman’s lips were blue; there was vomit and feces on her. Still conscious, she worried about missing a doctor’s appointment, but Costa knew she needed a hospital and called for an ambulance. By the time the medics arrived, they couldn’t find the woman’s vitals. They took her away, and the same day, Costa received the call she’d been dreading: The woman had died. “What hurt me the most was that I wasn’t able to be there with her,” Costa said, choking up.
Costa makes $10 an hour. This is a fifty-cent improvement from when she first started working as a certified nursing assistant in Georgia in 2007. Paying her bills is a question of “creative budgeting,” she said. The lights have to stay on now, and her twelve-year-old daughter needs the internet for school. But “the water bill is due on the 11th, and I won’t receive a shut off notice until the 20th. So this can go a little bit longer,” she explained. After her client died in December, she started driving for Lyft to try to make up the income. She said she lost money instead.
What she needs, she said, is a $15 minimum wage. And she needs it this year, not at some future date to be determined by lackadaisical legislators. So does Ieisha Franceis, who works for $9.20 an hour at Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers in Durham, North Carolina. Like Costa, Franceis is an activist with the Fight for $15 and a Union and helped lead two walkouts at Freddy’s last year over what she said were dangerous lapses in pandemic safety. She had hopes for this Congress. Now, on the phone, she sounds like a woman out of patience.
“It’s ridiculous,” Franceis said. “You have this unelected ghost that just popped up out of nowhere. Who is this person, this Senate parliamentarian? Who are you to decide whether millions of African American workers make more money and come out of poverty? Whether millions of Latinos are able to come out of poverty?”
Franceis and Costa have both paid close attention to the ongoing battle to include a $15 minimum wage in the latest COVID-19 stimulus package. Progressive Democrats have the votes in the House but not the Senate, where moderates Krysten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia remain steadfastly opposed to increasing the nation’s poverty wage. Last Thursday, Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled that the Byrd rule prohibited Democrats from including a minimum-wage hike in a relief bill passed through budget reconciliation to avoid a Republican filibuster — it is, to use the Byrd rule’s language, “extraneous.”
Progressive Democrats disagree. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has called for MacDonough to be fired; a group of House progressives, including Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Pramila Jayapal of Washington, have called for Vice-President Kamala Harris to overrule the parliamentarian. Even if that were to happen — the White House says it has no such plans — Manchin and Sinema would still deny Democrats the majority they need to give a living wage to workers like Franceis and Costa.
That disappoints Fight for $15 activists, who were courted by Democratic presidential candidates during the primary season. Harris, for example, joined striking members on a Las Vegas picket line and Joe Biden ran on a $15 minimum wage. Working with the Service Employees International Union, Fight for $15 organized a sophisticated get-out-the-vote campaign for Democratic candidates that built on previous successes with minimum-wage increases in a handful of states and municipalities. “I feel like we wore them down to make them listen,” Franceis said of the political class.
Public opinion also favors a $15 minimum wage. A February survey from Yahoo Finance and the Harris Poll found that 83 percent of Americans believe the federal $7.25 minimum wage, which hasn’t been raised since 2009, is too low. Fifty percent believe it should be either $13 to $15 or higher than $15. Twenty-nine percent support a wage of either $10 to $12. (Manchin supports an $11 minimum wage, placing him squarely within this minority.) Voters in Florida approved a $15 minimum wage by referendum last year. In fact, $15 an hour is something of a lowball estimate now: If the federal minimum wage first enacted in 1968 had kept up with inflation and worker-productivity growth, economist Dean Baker has said it would be more than $24 an hour today.
Nobody has suggested raising the wage quite that high, and most proposals for a $15 minimum wage would phase it in over the next several years, including the contested provision in the COVID-19 relief bill. But even an increase to $15 an hour would lift around 1 million people out of poverty, according to a recent analysis from the Congressional Budget Office. Though the CBO also found that a $15 minimum wage would lead to job losses — a conclusion disputed both by left-leaning think tanks like the Economic Policy Institute and by some literature on existing wage hikes — the losses would likely not be steep enough to offset the economic gains generated by giving workers a wage that keeps their lights on.
“If this is what you said you would do, and this is what’s in your heart to actually do, then let’s stop playing games. Stop trying to play nicey-nice in the sandbox,” she said. Costa, too, is waiting for the Democratic Party to deliver on its promises.
“I did my part. I got out and I voted, even during the pandemic. I didn’t vote by mail. I went down to the polling station because I felt like it was my duty,” said Costa, who lives in Atlanta. “I got my friends to come out and vote, and my family to come out and vote, because I believed that things would change if we changed the administration.”
Instead, she added, she’s still fighting. “Why do I have to fight for what these politicians take for granted?” she asked. “Why do I have to fight for the basic necessities?”