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Missouri's method for calculating minimum wage seen as a model for push to raise federal wage

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2013: Because of flight delays, acting U.S. Labor Secretary Seth Harris had to cancel his trip to St. Louis and Kansas City last week to promote President Barack Obama’s support for increasing the federal minimum wage.

But while he hopes to reschedule a Missouri visit, Harris said in a telephone interview Friday that there’s no question that the state figures in the national discussion. That’s because a provision of Missouri’s state minimum wage fits in with the president’s overall quest that begins with hiking the federal minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour, to at least $9 an hour.

Missouri’s state minimum is now a dime more, at $7.35 an hour, because of a cost-of-living clause in the state law that provides for annual adjustments. Harris said the president would like to see the same sort of indexing in the federal law.

“The president’s proposal includes that idea,’’ Harris said, “that once the minimum wage is raised to $9 an hour, the minimum wage thereafter would be indexed to the cost of living, so that if the cost of milk and gas and utilities went up, minimum wage workers would be able to keep up.”

If Congress were to approve the president’s proposal, Harris said wages would go up immediately for 15 million workers nationally who now earn the minimum $7.25.

In Missouri, the hike would benefit 299,000 workers, while pay would go up for 463,000 counterparts in Illinois.

Harris acknowledges that Obama faces a challenge in winning over Congress, particularly the Republican-controlled House. But Harris contended that he was optimistic, in part because polls have shown such overwhelming support for increasing the minimum wage, last raised in 2009.

Obama is proposing the minimum-wage increase, Harris said, because “he thinks it’s an outrage that workers who are working fulltime, taking responsibility for themselves, fighting to support their kids, are still living in poverty.”

“Raising the minimum wage in this way will lift a lot of people out of poverty,” the labor chief continued. “Combined with other policies that the president has advocated, like the childcare tax credit, it will help them lift themselves out of poverty.”

“It wouldn’t put them on ‘Easy Street,’ “ Harris continued. “But at least it would help.”

He added that his observations come after listening to dozens of minimum-wage workers at the more than two dozen roundtable events that the Labor Department has held around the country, or Harris’ 60 radio appearances, since the president first made his proposal during his State of the Union Address in January.

“The stories that these minimum-wage workers tell are powerful and poignant,” Harris continued, “talking about these excruciating choices they have to make, between buying food for their kids or buying clothes for their kids. Between getting their car fixed so they can go to work, or getting the heat fixed so they’ll be warm in winter.”

In St. Louis, McDonald’s worker  Jeanina Jenkins earns $7.45 an hour. “We are struggling,’’ the 20-year-old said in a telephone interview, as she told of living with her mother – and helping to pay household bills – while also trying to pay for the nursing program that Jenkins is attending.

Jenkins also is among some St. Louis fast-food workers who participated in protests outside the restaurants as part of a call to increase the minimum wage. Similar protests have been held in other Midwest cities, including Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee.

While the labor secretary was trying to get to Missouri on Thursday, Jenkins was in Chicago to join up with other fast-food workers participating in a rally and then showing up at McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting.

The Department of Labor is taking no position on the fast-food protests, Harris said., But he added that the gatherings are “another manifestation of the frustration…of low-wage workers.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.