Ryan Jones earns $290 every two weeks from his job at Popeyes in New Orleans. The check is gone the day it arrives, after bills are paid and his family's needs supported. "I can't afford to buy myself lunch," he said March 29. "I work hard on an empty stomach."
Baton Rouge lawmakers sitting on the Louisiana House Labor and Industrial Committee heard several stories about the cost of full-time work earning minimum wages - from the impacts to children in poverty while parents earn a low wage to workers' reliance on public assistance while big business earns millions of dollars in profit.
A few days after the Louisiana Senate rejected a mere $1.25 increase in a statewide minimum hourly wage, state Rep. Joe Bouie, D-New Orleans, introduced his bill to bring it up to $15 in 2019 - the first-ever attempt in the Louisiana legislature for a $15 wage. The committee rejected the proposal, with only three representatives in support.
A second attempt to extend the state's equal pay protections to women who work for state contractors also failed in the committee, after a Senate version was voted down earlier this week.
[jump] [content-3] Joining a national Fight for $15 campaign, workers in New Orleans have pushed across the state for a wage increase they say is more aligned to a living wage. More than two dozen candidates running in New Orleans elections in 2017 pledged support for Step Up Louisiana's platform, which calls for a $15 minimum wage for municipal workers and legislation that gives municipalities the autonomy to set their own minimum wage. Louisiana is among five states that do not have a minimum wage and rely on the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.
Though the minimum wage bills failed, another bill from state Sen. Troy Carter would put a minimum wage hike to a vote on fall ballots.
"We are once again neglecting what people deserve," Rep. Bouie told the committee. "That’s really the ideal wage. It’s a living wage. ... It’s the wage that would afford citizens who work to have a decent life."
Step Up Louisiana organizers and advocates illustrated how low wages trap workers in poverty or without room to save or earn enough to enroll in higher education to apply for jobs in more lucrative fields. Instead, they argue, taxpayers effectively subsidize the profits of large companies - like fast food, which employs thousands of people in the state - by paying for state services (like health care and food stamps) that a higher wage would eliminate. According to Step Up Louisiana, one in four Louisiana children live in households under the poverty line.
"You all know we can’t survive off $7.25 an hour," said Step Up Louisiana co-director Ben Zucker. "Can any of you live on $290 a week? ... Too many of these low-wage workers working for multinational corporations ... making record corporate profits come into our state and pay our workers so low they can’t afford to eat."
Business groups including the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) opposed the wage increase, arguing the market should determine how wages are set and the state should look to invest in STEM-related education opportunities, which produce higher-paying jobs.
State Rep. Ted James asked whether the groups knew how many of their members' employees are on Medicaid or supporting families as a single parent. "How do you suggest we pull ourselves out of the bottom?" he said.
"What’s the silver bullet for any of our problems? I don’t think there is one," said NFIB state director Dawn Starns. "If we continue to put mandates on small business owners, it’s going to have a chilling effect."
Bouie argued the wage increase and his equal pay legislation are steps toward "economic justice."
"I appreciate the opponents' perspective, but that’s what they get paid to do: convolute the issue," Bouie said following debate over his equal pay measure. "The reality is this is a condition in the state of Louisiana - we allow discrimination of pay ... I don’t understand how we can embrace discrimination against almost 50 percent of the female-headed families of this state."