Twenty states and dozens of localities increased their minimum wage on Friday, giving a financial boost to many frontline workers during the pandemic.
New Mexico will see the largest jump, adding $1.50 to its hourly minimum and bringing it up to $10.50. Arkansas, California, Illinois and New Jersey will each increase their minimum wages by $1.
Alaska, Maine and South Dakota will increase wages by just 15 cents an hour, while the rate in Minnesota will rise by half that, at 8 cents, to $10.08 an hour.
Additional increases are scheduled for elsewhere this year, with most changes taking effect on July 1.
Low-income earners, like much of the country’s workforce, have seen their wages remain relatively stagnant for decades when inflation is taken into account. Proponents say the new raises will help reduce poverty and offer much-needed pay hikes to some of the most vulnerable workers.
“Minimum wage increases income levels, reduces poverty, so I think it’s pretty clear that it improves conditions in the lower end of the wage distribution,” said Daniel Kuehn a research associate at The Urban Institute.
Localities are also boosting their minimum pay. Flagstaff, Ariz., will see wages rise from $13 an hour to $15, as will Burlingame, Calif.
In some municipalities, the increases are dependent on business size. Hayward, Calif., for example, will follow the same wage hike as Burlingame, but employers who 25 or fewer workers will need to raise wages from $12 an hour to $14.
Varying minimum wages across localities, Kuehn said, lets governments take into account different cost-of-living conditions.
“I think the ideal policy would include a lot of local variation, but that doesn’t mean a federal floor isn’t helpful,” he said.
The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009. In recent years, the goal of a $15 minimum wage has become a standard progressive policy.
House Democrats in July 2019 passed a bill that would gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $15 gradually through 2025, but the measure died in the GOP-controlled Senate.
“While families work hard to make ends meet, their cost of living has surged to unsustainable highs, inflation has eaten nearly 20 percent of their wages and the GOP’s special interested agenda has left them behind,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at the time.
“No one can live with dignity on a $7.25 an hour wage,” she added.
The issue is back in the political spotlight again with Tuesday’s runoff elections in Georgia that will determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years.
The Democratic challengers are arguing that the federal minimum wage will only increase if they win both races.
“If the federal minimum wage kept up with the cost of living, it would be even higher than $15,” Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff said last week. “The basic premise is that anybody in this country working a single full-time job should be bringing home enough money to sustain themselves and then some.”
But critics argue that minimum wage increases could slow job growth by raising labor costs for employers, an issue of particular concern during the fragile recovery from the coronavirus recession.
“A dramatic increase in the minimum wage even in good economic times has been shown to be harmful,” said Michael Saltsman, the managing director for the Employment Policy Institute, a think tank tied to the restaurant and hospitality industry.
“In the current climate, for many employers it could be the final nail in the coffin,” he added.
Saltsman argued that increasing anti-poverty programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit are better policies than wage increases. The tax credit essentially operates as a government subsidy for low-wage work, shifting the onus of paying the extra wages from businesses to taxpayers.
Kuehn said there is little evidence to suggest that small and gradual increases of the minimum wage have significant effects on employment.
“The minimum wage increase levels we see get passed are not large enough to have significant employment effects,” he said.
But he concedes that it’s harder to predict the effects of a quick nationwide boost toward $15.
“I think it’s important to note that since we’ve never had a federal increase of that magnitude, there’s a lot we don’t know,” he said. “With something of that size, you would worry about low-wage places like Mississippi or Alabama.”
A report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in 2019 projected that a gradual increase to $15 through 2025 would mean “1.3 million workers who would otherwise be employed would be jobless in an average week in 2025.”
But it also specified a range of possible outcomes, including no job losses on the low end and as many as 3.7 million jobs lost on the high end.
The report found that 27 million people would see higher income, and that the poorest families would have wages rise as much as 5.2 percent.
Researchers such as Kuehn are adamant that businesses can handle increasing wages at moderate levels, even in the midst of a global health crisis.
“It certainly doesn’t make businesses’ lives easier, but businesses aren’t struggling right now because of wage costs,” he said.
“They’re hurting because of the pandemic.”