Congress plays catchup


Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 12:24 a.m.
House approves a bill that proposes to increase the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour and affects 13 million workers.
For nearly a decade the federal minimum wage has been $5.15 an hour. During that time, the cost of living has risen 26 percent. After adjusting for inflation, the minimum wage is at its lowest level in more than 50 years.
When compared to the average wage for the nation's lowest-paid workers in the private sector, the minimum wage amounts to only 31 percent of that wage. It is the lowest share since at least the end of World War II.
When the minimum wage is compared to the exorbitant rise in the salaries of some chief executive officers, the discrepancy is even more startling. By 2005, the average CEO was paid 821 times as much as a minimum-wage earner. A report from the Economic Policy Institute put the number in perspective: "An average CEO earns more before lunchtime on the very first day of work in the year than a minimum-wage worker earns all year."
As of Jan. 1, 29 states have acted on their own to raise the minimum wage. Florida voters two years ago approved an increase linked annually to inflation. This year's increase moved it to $6.67 an hour, about 29 percent more than the federal minimum.
On Wednesday, the House approved a bill to increase the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour over the next two years. The 40.7 percent increase still needs approval of the Senate, and would come in three stages: going to $5.85 within 60 days of passage, $6.55 a year after that and then up another 70 cents a year later.
An increase would affect a total of 13 million workers. Just fewer than half are at the current minimum wage. The remainder earn just more than it.
"Today we finally release them from being frozen in time, stuck at that wage level when their gas prices are higher, their education prices are higher, when their medical costs are higher," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., sponsor of the bill and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
In the Senate, Democrats hope to attract Republican support by including a package of small-business tax breaks estimated to cost the treasury about $10 billion over the next 10 years. Late last year, President George W. Bush said he would support the $2.10-an-hour increase in the minimum wage, but any increase should be linked to tax and regulatory relief for small businesses. Reportedly, however, Republicans want tax cuts that would cost twice what Democrats are proposing.
John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, told The Washington Post that an increase for minimum wage workers "should not have to depend on even more payoffs for business."
After nearly 10 years, America's poorest-paid shouldn't have to wait any longer.

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