The Battle for the Living Wage Comes to Alabama
“I haven’t bought groceries since I started this job. Not because I’m lazy, but because I got this ten pound bag of rice before I moved here and my meals at home (including the one I’m having as I write this) consist, by and large, of that. Because I can’t afford to buy groceries.”
In 2014, 1.3 million workers in the United States earned the federal minimum wage. 1.7 million workers in the United States earned under that level. Most of those workers, like the author of the words above, were between 16 to 29 years old. These figures encompass high school students working their first part-time job at a restaurant, but they also encompassed young millennials working entry-level jobs that pay barely more than their monthly rent. These figures encompass single parents, graduates with towering student loans, and overqualified professionals that lost their higher-paying jobs during the recession. Another surprising feature of these statistics is that the majority of these hourly-paid workers are not the high school dropouts flipping burgers that our parents warned us we would become if we didn’t apply ourselves in school. They are high school graduates, thousands of which have at least some college or an Associates degree. Thousands more have even made it all the way through college and attained a bachelor’s degree, and yet still find themselves working for an hourly wage that oftentimes is not enough to cover all their expenses. Trying to survive on a minimum wage is no longer an issue that affects only the least qualified of us; it is now a plight so common that it affects all of us.
In her open letter to the CEO of Yelp, Talia Jane outlines many of the problems of trying to survive on the minimum wage. Jane explains that 80% of the roughly $1400 she makes a month goes to paying her rent. That leaves Jane, and other similarly situated workers, with only 20% of her income left to cover transportation, her phone bill, food, and any other incidental expenses she may incur. Jane is luckier than most, however; she receives benefits in the form of healthcare, vision, and dental insurance through her employer, but she can barely scrape together the $20 co-pay when she gets sick.
Jane lives in the Bay Area of San Francisco, admittedly one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. In the Bay Area, the minimum wage is $9 an hour. A living wage for one adult to support herself is $14.37. This disconnect between the minimum wage and the living wage is pervasive through the United States and we in Alabama are not insulated from it. In Tuscaloosa, the minimum wage is $7.25, while a living wage for one adult is $10.10. In Birmingham, a living wage is $10.36.
The fight to help workers earn a salary they can actually live on is unfolding close to our own home. On February 23, 2016, lawmakers on Birmingham’s city council acted to raise their minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, closer to a living wage. If successfully implemented, Birmingham would have been the first city in the South with such a high minimum wage. In an effort to keep the state legislature from circumventing their efforts, the city council voted to implement this new wage citywide as early as February 24. However, before the living wage could become a reality in Birmingham, the state legislature of Alabama quickly passed a bill barring cities from setting local wage requirements. Governor Bentley signed the bill into law a mere hour after it passed in the Senate. Bentley cited “wage consistency” and fear over how the law would affect local business owners as his motivation behind signing the bill, though the Governor identified poverty as a key concern facing Alabama in his State of the State address earlier this year.
This struggle between local and state lawmakers is by no means a new one. In 29 states and the District of Columbia, workers are paid above the federal minimum. Just last week, lawmakers in Oregon embarked on a plan to raise the City of Portland’s minimum wage to $14.25 by 2022. These local laws raising the minimum wage often meet the same resistance that Birmingham’s did. This is because of the recent “explosion of local minimum wage laws, and that extends into more conservative states where you have more liberal metropolitan areas.” As a result, in conservative areas, state legislatures often balk and take action to block such laws.
The problem is that the best way to improve the plight of struggling workers like Talia Jane is on a local level. City councils are best equipped to understand the concerns of both their business owners and the workers who serve them. A federally mandated minimum wage, while helpful as a benchmark, does not accurately reflect the economic realities of cities as different as San Francisco and Birmingham. As long as state legislatures continue to block these efforts, however, change will still occur on a halting and piecemeal basis while minimum wage workers continue to struggle.
It is important that cities like Birmingham, Portland, and San Francisco take stock of the individual problems that face their cities and set living wages that reflect those unique problems. This would allow the rest of the state to follow suit. The state legislature should act as a facilitator for individualized determinations of a living wage in each city instead of acting as a roadblock on the way to combatting poverty.
 Talia Jane, An Open Letter to My CEO, Medium.Com (Feb. 19, 2016), available at https://medium.com/@taliajane/an-open-letter-to-my-ceo-fb73df021e7a#.48zsbrlah
 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Characteristics of Minimum Wage Workers, 2014, at 1, BLS Reports (Apr. 2015), http://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/cps/characteristics-of-minimum-wage-workers-2014.pdf
 Id. at 9
 Talia Jane, An Open Letter to My CEO, Medium.Com (Feb. 19, 2016), https://medium.com/@taliajane/an-open-letter-to-my-ceo-fb73df021e7a#.48zsbrlah
 Kelsey Stein, Birmingham City Council Again Votes to Increase Minimum Wage Sooner Than Planned, AL.com, (Feb. 23, 2016), http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2016/02/birmingham_minimum_wage_vote_d.html
 Jana Kasperkevic, Alabama Passes Law Banning Cities and Towns From Increasing Minimum Wage, The Guardian, (Feb. 26, 2016), http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/feb/26/alabama-passes-law-banning-minimum-wage-increase?CMP=share_btn_link
 Alan Blinder, When a State Balks at a City’s Minimum Wage, The New York Times, (Feb. 21, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/22/us/alabama-moves-to-halt-pay-law-in-birmingham.html.