California and New York —where almost 1 in 5 Americans live — are on their way to raising their minimum wage to $15 an hour, and the activists who spearheaded those efforts are now setting their sights on other similarly liberal, Democratic-led states.
Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington are among the states with active “Fight for $15” efforts, and even economic experts who oppose the increased rate see it gaining momentum.
“There is lots of pressure to do this,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director who is now president of the conservative American Action Forum, which says big minimum-wage increases cost jobs.
The idea faces headwinds in more conservative and rural states in the South and the Midwest. But activists believe it is picking up steam, even if their two big victories so far were achieved in two very receptive places: trend-setting, liberal, labor-friendly states with a high cost of living and a yawning gap between rich and poor.
“In the beginning, it looked impossible,” said Alvin Major, a former fast food worker who is now a leader of the Fight for $15 campaign. But now, “what happened in New York, in California, it’s going to spread around the country.”
Since the $15-an-hour movement planted roots with a 2012 New York City fast food workers strike, it has gained ground amid the broader debate over wage stagnation and income inequality. Cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco have recently agreed to go to $15 in the coming years, and Oregon’s minimum wage is headed to $14.75 in Portland.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been pushing for a $15-an-hour standard nationally, while President Barack Obama has called more generally for raising the minimum wage. The federal minimum is currently $7.25; 29 states and Washington, D.C., have set theirs higher.
New York and California are now on track to have the highest. California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, is set Monday to sign a measure boosting the current $10 rate to $15 by 2022.
In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders have agreed on a more complex plan. The $9 minimum would rise to $15 at many New York City businesses in 2019, at those with under 10 employees in 2020, and in some prosperous suburbs in 2022. But it would go only to $12.50 in 2022 in the rest of the state, with further increases to $15 tied to inflation and other economic indicators.
While supporters hail the agreements as signs of the movement’s strength, they also were products of compromise with those who worried that the increases would harm businesses and ultimately workers.
In California, where more than 2 million workers currently make minimum wage, Brown initially opposed raising the minimum, saying it would put poor people out of work and cost the state billions more in pay for its own employees. But he ultimately made a deal to head off competing labor-backed November ballot initiatives that would have imposed swifter increases without some of the safeguards included in the legislation.
New York’s graduated approach stemmed from negotiations with state Senate Republicans who worried such a sharp increase would devastate businesses, particularly in the more fragile economy upstate.
Similar dynamics may play out as proponents push for $15 in other parts of the country. While $15 may seem reasonable in high-paying areas, “it’s a much harder lift in low-wage areas,” said Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
Also, California and New York have politically influential unions, strong community organizing activity and Democratic politicians eager to translate the movement into legislation.
“That’s not going to happen in some states, particularly in the South and maybe some of the Midwest,” said Peter Dreier, a politics professor at Occidental College.