The Battle for Minimum Wage

Dayton Daily News - December 27, 2005
   

Dayton Daily News

By Stephanie Irwin

DAYTON | As energy costs rise, many say there’s a growing urgency in raising the minimum wage. Currently, the federal minimum is $5.15 per hour and Ohio’s minimum is set at $4.25. Employers’ lobbyists say raising the rate would be disastrous, but for the state’s working poor, the time for debate is running out. With consumer prices and home heating costs on the rise, Ohio workers earning minimum wage will be hitting food pantries to help fill in the financial gaps over the holidays.

Nearly half of the able-bodied adults who rely on donated food are low-wage workers, say officials at local food banks.

In Ohio, they work as restaurant servers, dishwashers, cooks, retail cashiers and clerks, cleaning maids, hotel workers and child care workers, according to 2003 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Because of wage stagnation, we have people coming to us for the first time people who said last year they were donating to our food banks, not using them,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks in Columbus.

The majority of the 3 million pounds of food distributed each year in the Miami Valley by the Foodbank at 427 Washington St. ends up on the tables of working families, the organization said. Its 25,000-square foot warehouse supplies 90 pantries in three counties; demand accumulates around the holidays.

“Seasonal workers earning minimum wage get their hours cut, for example, and the paychecks start decreasing,” said the Foodbank’s executive director, Burma Rai.

So when price spikes come along, minimum wage workers are drastically and quickly affected. “They are using all of their paychecks to buy fuel to get to work and some basics,” said Amy Hanauer, economist and executive director for Cleveland-based Policy Matters Ohio. The nonpartisan research group studies unemployment, wage distribution and other workforce policy matters.

While low-wage workers often qualify for emergency assistance programs, “inflation will really hit them, even though they might get those other kinds of benefits,” she said.

That could make for a hard winter with the double-whammy of increased home heating costs during the holiday shopping season.

But the focus on making ends meet won’t end this year with Christmas dinner and natural gas bills.

Food pantries are also facing the possible deluge of 5,700 unemployed Delphi workers, should local plants close as part of the auto-parts maker’s Chapter 11 restructuring.

“Everybody’s really concerned about Delphi workers and what will need to be done,” Hamler-Fugitt said.

The Foodbank, Ohio chapter of the AFL-CIO and the United Way are working on a plan modeled after other Ohio communities that have survived plant closings, such as the Mahoning River valley in Northeast Ohio, Hamler-Fugitt said.

“We’ve seen this all over Ohio, communities that move from having world-class manufacturing industries to service industries. And those service workers in those communities have survived on charities,” she said.

Meanwhile in Columbus, lawmakers and business interests are winding up for a November 2006 ballot battle over an increase in the state’s minimum wage.

Two days before Thanksgiving, a coalition called Ohioans for a Fair Minimum Wage announced an effort to raise the state’s minimum to $6.85.

Ohio is one of only two states with a minimum wage lower than the federal minimum of $5.15 per hour.

Ohio’s minimum has been $4.25 since 1991.

The coalition, led by the AFL-CIO, plans to gather 322,000 signatures from registered voters to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

If that happens, business interests who historically oppose wage hikes will plan an aggressive campaign against it, the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants told the Dayton Daily News last week.

The number of workers earning less than the proposed $6.85 is about 350,000-400,000, Hanauer estimated.

She helped research an April study on a proposed state minimum wage increase to $7.15. The study found that the real buying power of the federal minimum wage is at its lowest point for the second time in 50 years.

The minimum wage bill, sponsored by Senate Democratic leader C.J. Prentiss of Cleveland, is currently hung up in the Senate.

A trip to the food pantry can provide one person with a minimum of three meals a day for 5 days.

“When you get laid off, you’ll start to feel it in about 6-8 weeks.
Unfortunately, many think of charity food relief as homelessness, soup kitchens,” Rai said.

“But food pantries are going to be your first line of defense.”

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