AUBURN — Nearly everyone agrees that hard work is the bedrock of the American Dream. Workers keep our economy humming: They cook meals in restaurants, care for our children, provide customer service, grow vegetables, process food in factories, wash dishes and more.

But many of the people working these low-wage jobs can barely feed their own families. For 10 years, the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour. In that same decade, food prices have increased about 25 percent. Families are working harder than ever but losing ground fast. Inequality is a problem disrupting our country.

Across the U.S., nearly 40 million workers would benefit from raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, according to a new Oxfam America and Economic Policy Institute analysis. Here in Maine, that’s a third of our workforce, or 203,000 people. And these are not teenagers working summer jobs. In Maine, the vast majority of low-wage workers are at least 20 years old, and 45 percent are single parents.

And yet, here we are in 2019, looking at another attempt in Congress to increase the federal minimum wage through the Raise the Wage Act of 2019 – and anticipating that it will not pass the Senate.

Republican senators are standing between nearly 40 million U.S. workers and a raise in the minimum wage to $15 by 2024. And one of those senators is our very own Susan Collins.

I know, like and respect Sen. Collins. She knows Maine and its people well – which is precisely why her failure to come out in support of the Raise the Wage Act is so disappointing.

Mainers already know that working people deserve a raise – that’s why we approved raises to our state minimum wage in a 2016 referendum. We know that workers support a raise. And we know that businesses do, too. As co-owner and CEO of Lamey-Wellehan, a Maine-based and family-owned shoe store, I know that a fair wage is right for our people and their families. Our business is stronger because of it.

Business owners are well aware of the need for their workers to earn decent wages. Not only is it fair, it makes good business sense. Decent wages attract and retain workers, who pump money back into local economies. We know that working families are more healthy, engaged and prosperous. Large employers that have committed to raising base pay to at least $15 include Amazon, Target and the Walt Disney Co. theme parks. In Maine, they include Bangor Savings Bank and Maine Community Bancorp, which owns Biddeford Savings Bank and Mechanics Savings Bank.

Keeping the minimum wage unnaturally low hurts our working families – and it’s especially unnecessary at a time when employment rates are high. If the minimum wage were tied to America’s gains in productivity and technology, it’s estimated that it would be over $20 an hour.

With many cities and states raising minimum wages, one might think the federal level is less important than it used to be – but the reality is we need a systemic adjustment. The country is now a patchwork of state fixes, with no real, lasting solution for all American workers. States right next to each other, with similar costs of living, have dramatically different wages – and disparate numbers of workers struggling.

Americans are ready for Congress to act. Polls consistently show broad support for raising the minimum – including up to three-quarters of Democrats and a majority of Republicans in a Hill-HarrisX survey. In one recent poll by the personal finance website LendEDU, 67 percent of small-business owners said they support the minimum-wage increase to $15 an hour, as it will help spark consumer demand, enabling them to retain or hire new employees.

Moreover, with this raise, millions can work their way out of poverty. The raise would generate $120 billion in total added worker incomes by 2024, pumping more money and economic growth into communities across America.

It’s difficult to see why Republican senators, including Maine’s own Susan Collins, are so ruled by party agendas that they won’t do the right thing for the citizens they are supposed to represent. The rest of us can see it clearly: It’s time to raise the minimum wage.

 

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