US minimum wage activists face unlikely foe: Democrat Joe Manchin | Minimum wage

Hopes that the US will finally increase the federal minimum wage for the first time in nearly 12 years face a seemingly unlikely opponent: a Democrat senator from one of the poorest states in the union.

Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the state’s former governor and the Democrats’ most conservative senator, has long opposed his party’s progressive wing and is on record saying he does not support increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour, the first increase since 2009. “I’m supportive of basically having something that’s responsible and reasonable,” he told the Hill. He has advocated for a rise to $11.

None of this has found favor with some low-wage workers in a state where an estimated 278,734 West Virginians lived in poverty in 2019, 16% of the population and the sixth highest poverty rate in the US.

Last Thursday Manchin reaffirmed his stance during a virtual meeting with members of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign (WVPPC), a group pushing for an increased minimum wage and other policy changes that would benefit the working class.

That meeting was closed to the media but at an online press conference immediately afterward, participants said Manchin refused to budge. “He was kind of copping out,” said WVPPC member Brianna Griffith, a restaurant worker and whitewater rafting guide who, due to exemptions for tipped workers, only makes $2.62 an hour.

As a result of her sub-minimum wage job, Griffith received only $67 a week in unemployment benefits until that ran out in August. She lost her house and was forced to move in with her grandmother. Although she has now returned to work, business is slow and she estimates tips have fallen by 75%.

When Griffith told Manchin about her plight n Thursday, she said he asked about the $600 stimulus check approved by Congress in December. “He seemed to think that $600 … was enough to get me by,” she said. “I feel like he’s got his head in the clouds and he doesn’t understand what’s happening to poor people in West Virginia.”

Despite Manchin’s insistence on an $11 minimum wage, according to MIT’s living wage calculator, even a $15 minimum wage would only provide a living wage for single West Virginians without children. For a West Virginia family with two working parents and two children, both parents would need to be making at least $20.14 an hour to make ends meet.

Griffith said if the minimum wage was increased to $15 an hour, “I could afford to live on my own. I could afford a car that’s not 25 years old.”

Fast-food workers and supporters rally in Los Angeles on 18 February. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The Rev Dr William Barber, co-chair of the national Poor People’s Campaign, was in last week’s meeting and said Manchin agreed the current $7.25 minimum wage was “not enough”.

But Barber said he was “amazed” Manchin could hear from people like Griffith and still oppose increasing the minimum wage to $15.

“What he is suggesting would just further keep people in poverty and hurting,” he said.

Raising the minimum wage was a key part of Democrats’ 2020 platform. The former presidential candidate and now Senate budget committee chairman, Bernie Sanders, has referred to the current $7.25 rate as “a starvation wage”.

The wage hike, formally known as the Raise the Wage Act of 2021, is now part of a proposed $1.9tn Covid-19 relief bill. The measure would incrementally raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 over the next four years.

With only a razor-thin majority in the Senate, all 50 Democrat senators need to be onboard for the bill to pass. But in addition to Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has told Politico she does not want the minimum wage increase to be part of the Covid relief package.

There are some reasons to be hesitant about increasing the minimum wage. A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report detailing the economic impact of the Raise the Wage Act has estimated the legislation would eliminate an estimated 1.4m jobs and would swell the national debt by $54bn over the next decade.

But the report also estimates a $15 minimum wage would lift 900,000 people out of poverty nationwide and inject $333m into the US economy.

Other economists have disputed the CBO report. Estimates by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute predict 32 million US workers would benefit from the minimum wage increase, which includes a quarter-million workers in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia.

WVPPC member Pam Garrison was also on Thursday’s call with Manchin. Garrison is 55 years old and says she has earned minimum wage her entire working life and makes ends meet by taking side jobs cleaning houses. She spoke of the mental, physical and emotional toll that living in poverty has on people like her.

“You’re just frazzled,” she said. “If you’ve never lived in poverty, you have no idea what it does to you.”

If you’ve never lived in poverty, you have no idea what it does to youPam Garrison

Garrison said Manchin ‘heard our side” but is reluctant to embrace a $15 minimum wage because he is worried small businesses could not absorb the increased labor costs. But she said giving low-wage workers more money would also benefit small businesses.

“If you give us a decent pay, we’re going to put the money back into the economy (and) we’re going to be able to feed our families,” she said.

Members of the WVPPC plan to continue lobbying Manchin on the Raise the Wage Act despite his seeming unwillingness to change his stance on the legislation.

The group will hold a masked, socially distanced rally outside his office in Charleston, West Virginia, on Monday. A similar rally will be held at . Sinema’s office in Pheonix, Arizona.

Manchin’s office denied multiple requests for comment.

  • Zack Harold is a freelance writer and radio producer in Charleston, West Virginia. He is a regular contributor for West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and formerly served as the Charleston Daily Mail’s entertainment editor and managing editor for WV Living, Wonderful West Virginia and WV Focus magazines