In what’s considered the first test of the party’s legislative power, Democrats are pushing for a $15 minimum federal wage within President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill.
In the Senate, the entire party needs to be on board to reach the simple majority required for the budget measure to be part of the reconciliation process. Two senators, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have opposed the measure.
Sinema says she doesn’t believe it should be a budget item. Manchin, who represents one of the poorest states in the union, supports a more conservative increase to $11 an hour.
The debate could not come at a more pivotal time. The pandemic revealed endless evidence of the country’s wealth gap. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour since 2009.
Since 2012, nine states representing approximately 40% of the U.S. workforce—California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and the District of Columbia—have raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour. Nine other states have approved increases, with wages ranging from $12 to $14.75.
Gradually raising the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025 would lift pay for nearly 32 million workers—21% of the U.S. workforce, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Within healthcare, more than 2 million lower-skilled workers would be affected.
Meantime, raising minimum wages would have a startling impact to people of color. Nearly 31% of African-Americans and 26% of Latinos would see raises of around $3,000 a year if the measure is passed. Almost 23% of those who would benefit is a Black or Latina woman.
Many of these are the same people who worked throughout the pandemic without the option of remote employment. They are grocery employees, restaurant servers and low-wage healthcare staff.
The pandemic taught us that healthcare is provided by more than clinicians. Our reporters were told time and time again how integral the environmental service workers and other facilities staff are to maintaining safe patient care.
Patient-facing home health aides and personal care aides were paid a median wage of $12.15 in 2019.
In 2019, the healthcare support, service and direct care workforce, which includes pharmacy aides, nursing assistants and housekeepers, among others, was 81% women, 25% Black, and 21% Latino or Hispanic, according to Brookings.
There’s also little consideration for the strain low pay puts on safety-net programs, which seem constantly at budgeting odds with healthcare spending.
A study this year by the University of California Berkeley Law Center found that public programs in states without a $15 minimum wage law cost federal and state taxpayers more than $107 billion a year. Underpaid workers and their dependents make up 42% of total spending on Medicaid and CHIP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and food stamps.
Hospital lobbying groups have not taken an official stance on the issue of a $15 minimum federal wage. But many health systems, understanding the positive impact higher wages can have on a household’s overall well-being, already have raised wages.
“There is a strong association between financial health and security and overall health, a reality that has been driven home over the last eight months for our team members who are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19,” Henry Ford Health System CEO Wright Lassiter III said in October when the raises at his system were announced.
The move affected 3,000 workers and will cost the health system $6 million annually.
Cleveland Clinic, Jefferson Health, Duke University Health System and Advocate Aurora Health all have provided a $15 per hour minimum wage in recent years.
Let’s not forget the lessons that COVID taught us about the importance of all players in the healthcare ecosystem. Given the size and the significance of support staff, system leaders should give this measure their full-throated support.