Is Tennessee falling behind on minimum wage?

Minimum Wage Protests California_257640

Workers demonstrate for a $15 minimum wage at San Francisco International Airport Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, in San Francisco. Fast-food restaurant workers and home and child-care workers rallied in cities including Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and New York on Tuesday morning. More protests were expected later in the day. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – In 2017, 19 states across the country increased minimum wage.

The minimum wage increased in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont, and Washington. Massachusetts and Washington state have the highest new minimum wages in the country, at $11 per hour.

Tennessee is one of five states that do not have a minimum wage law, a trend throughout the Southeast United States. The national minimum was last raised, to $7.25, in 2009.

While 19 states have minimum wage laws that are at $7.25 and two states have standards less than the federal minimum wage, 31 states have laws that call for a minimum wage higher than the national minimum wage.

About 7.4 percent of hourly workers in Tennessee earned wages at or below $7.25, according to the U.S. Census Current Population Survey. That’s the highest proportion of minimum wage workers in the country, according to the report. Nationally about 4.3 percent of the workforce or 3.3 million workers earn at or below minimum wage.

Back in 1968, the federal minimum wage was $1.60 an hour. Tennessee’s current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is 31 percent lower than the value of the minimum wage in 1968. According to Raising the Minimum Wage, if the minimum wage had kept up with inflation during the ensuing 46 years, it would be more than $10.50 an hour today.

President Barack Obama has sought to gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Raising the minimum wage would increase wages for 635,000 workers in Tennessee by $987,829,000 if the minimum wage is raised to $10.10, according to the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“Right now, a parent working full-time earning the minimum wage and raising two children is making poverty wages. She struggles to make ends meet and can barely afford basics such as school supplies for her children. But with a higher minimum wage, workers will have more money to spend on basic needs, money that will go back into the local economy, which in turn gives businesses more customers—helping them to hire more workers. It is time to put more money in the pockets of hardworking people in Tennessee and boost our economy,” said Anna Chu with the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Chu argues that federal minimum wage has failed to keep up with either inflation or worker productivity. She says the widening income inequality gap is hurting low and middle-income American families and hurting communities and the economy.

While workers and labor advocates argue the increases will help low-wage workers now barely making ends meet and boost the economy by giving some consumers more money to spend, many business owners opposed the higher wages, saying they would lead to higher prices and greater automation. Some restaurant owners may consider reducing portion sizes or charging for side dishes that were once included in the price of a meal to absorb the increase, according to Melissa Fleischut, president of the New York State Restaurant Association.

“I’m sure prices will go up where they can, but restaurants want to avoid sticker shock,” said Fleischut. “They’re going to have to get creative.”

The high number of states and localities raising the wage this year reflects the successful work of fast-food workers and organized labor, according to Tsedeye Gebreselassie, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, as well as federal inaction on the wage.

“These aren’t only teens trying to make some pocket money,” she said. “Increasingly it’s adults who are using this money to support their families.”

California raised its wage to $10.50 for businesses with 26 or more employees in 2017. New York state is taking a regional approach, with the wage rising to $11 in New York City, to $10.50 for small businesses in the city, $10 in its downstate suburbs and $9.70 elsewhere. Some specific businesses – fast-food restaurants and the smallest New York City businesses – will have slightly different wage requirements. The adjustments in New York, California and several other states are part of a series of gradual increases to a $12 or $15 hourly wage.

“This $1.50 increase, I cannot even comprehend or tell you how important this will be,” said Alvin Major, a New York City fast-food worker. The 51-year-old father of four helped lead the fight for the increase in his state, one of several successful efforts by fast-food workers and other low wage workers around the country. “The price of food has gone up. Rent has gone up. Everything has gone up. … This will make a difference for so many people.”

Voters in Arizona, Maine, Colorado and Washington approved increases in this year’s election. Seven other states, Alaska, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio and South Dakota, are automatically raising the wage based on indexing. The other states seeing increases are Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Michigan and Vermont. Additional increases are slated for later in the year in Oregon, Washington, D.C., and Maryland.

In Arizona, the state Chamber of Commerce and Industry filed a lawsuit challenging the increase, which will raise the minimum wage from $8.05 to $10. On Thursday, the Arizona Supreme Court refused to temporarily block the raise. The minimum wage will also go up in 22 cities and counties, including San Diego, San Jose and Seattle.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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