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Wisconsin residents push for an increase in $7.25 minimum wage
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ECONOMY | FIGHT FOR $15

Wisconsin residents push for an increase in $7.25 minimum wage

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For 26-year-old Olivia McKnight, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would transform her life.

The price of a college education keeps rising, while minimum wage and the amount of hours in a day don’t. Here’s how many hours a week a student would have to work to cover their tuition and other fees. PennyGem’s Johana Restrepo has more.

As a full-time Popeyes employee in Milwaukee, McKnight makes $10 an hour. This isn’t nearly enough to support herself and her three children. She also works a second job. The long work hours have forced her to miss out on time spent with her children, including holidays and key life moments.

For 29-year-old James Rudd, who earns more than $15 an hour now, he is finally able to pay for the things he needs. And he now fights for all workers in Wisconsin to reach at least $15 an hour.

“Fifteen dollars is just a start. We want to take vacations,” Rudd said. “We want to be able to live the American dream.”

In contrast with McKnight, Rudd’s maintenance job at AT&T’s Milwaukee office cleaning floors and changing light bulbs has made his life easier. He can afford health insurance, bus fare and to keep current on his bills — all of which were out of reach when he earned $7.25 or $8 an hour.

That’s where McKnight is now.

“I try to provide for my family day to day, month to month, paying rent, paying electric, lights, and trying to find babysitters,” she said. “It’s definitely hard, it takes the majority of my time away, and it’s like I’m almost working for pennies.”

Roughly 1 million hourly workers nationwide earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour or less. Like others fed up with low earnings, McKnight recently joined the Fight for $15, a global political movement working to increase the minimum wage.

In Wisconsin, where the racial wealth and income gaps are some of the largest in the nation, many feel raising the minimum wage is long overdue. According to a 2019 Marquette Law School Poll, 55% of Wisconsinites support raising the minimum wage, while 39% oppose it. Black women like McKnight are among those who would benefit the most from it.

Black and Hispanic women are more than twice as likely as white men to make less than $15 per hour, according to calculations by The Washington Post using federal jobs data. About 46% of Hispanic women and 39% of Black women earn less than $15 an hour, while only 18% of white and Asian men earn less than $15 per hour. In Wisconsin, an estimated 43.7% of residents earn less than $15 an hour.

Because of grassroots movements like the Fight for $15 and growing political support, eight states and the District of Columbia have already passed legislation to raise the wage to $15 an hour, most recently Florida, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

But not Wisconsin. It is among 21 states whose minimum wage matches the federal level of $7.25 an hour. In 10 other states, the minimum is higher but still under $10, the UC Berkeley Labor Center reports.

Movement gaining speed

Legislators, activists and community members have organized, lobbied and proposed changes to the federal and state-level wages for years, well before Democrats tried unsuccessfully to include a federal $15 minimum wage in the pandemic relief package passed in February 2021.

In January, Democrats reintroduced the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 and end pay below-the-minimum wage for tipped workers. Under the bill, the minimum wage would increase immediately to $9.50 an hour, then to $11 per hour next year, $12.50 in 2023, $14 in 2024 and then $15 in 2025. A similar bill was introduced in 2019 but never cleared the GOP-controlled Senate.

The main reason minimum wage bills have stalled: Opponents argue that raising it would force many businesses to close or cut their workforces, resulting in fewer jobs.

A recent Congressional Budget Office report estimated that implementing a nationwide minimum of $15 an hour would lift nearly 1 million people out of poverty — but employment would be reduced by 1.4 million workers. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a powerful business lobby, argues raising the minimum wage would reduce opportunities for entry-level workers by making it more expensive for companies to hire them.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed raising the state’s minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2024 in his biennial budget plan, but Republicans in the Legislature removed the provision.

Wage gaps persist

Low wages have long been a problem for workers of color in Wisconsin. Black median household income in Milwaukee has fallen by almost 30% since 1979. In fact, the Black median household income of $29,655 is the lowest among the top 50 U.S. metropolitan areas, and it is only 42% of white median household income, which in 2018 was $70,561. That’s according to a 2020 study by the UW-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development, which controlled for cost of living while comparing metropolitan areas.

“I think that’s a profound finding,” said Marc Levine, co-founder of the center who led the study. “It tells us a lot about not only our history, but about what’s happening today in Milwaukee and how little progress it has made.”

Levine’s recent research focuses on Black communities and how they fare in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas on issues including housing segregation, incarceration, poverty and income. On nearly every measure, Milwaukee comes out at or near the bottom.

Differences in educational achievement do not account for the disparities in income. According to Levine’s report, a white high school dropout is over twice as likely to be employed in Milwaukee than a Black high school dropout. In fact, white high school dropouts have a higher employment rate than Black workers who have graduated from high school.

“So when we talk about raising the minimum wage and the Fight for 15, you can see how important that is for Black Milwaukee given the very low wages that are earned by Black males,” Levine told Wisconsin Watch. “My estimate is that almost 40 to 45% of Black workers in Milwaukee would benefit from raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.”

For state Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, the issue of raising the minimum wage is a moral one. Far too many people in the state who are working 40 hours a week — and who are disproportionately people of color — are still unable to take care of themselves and their families with dignity, she said.

On June 17, Agard announced she would reintroduce legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 in Wisconsin. She said it is “embarrassing” and “shameful” that the minimum hourly wage in the state has been frozen at $7.25 since 2009.

Low-wage workers on public assistance

Many minimum-wage workers are forced to rely on public assistance programs, which cost the state billions. Addressing income inequality, in part by raising the minimum wage, could actually save the state money in respect to government-funded assistance programs because people would be able to better support themselves and their families, Agard said.

“Increased wages mean less people (are) reliant on government assistance for food, health care and other essentials,” she said. “In the richest country on the planet, no one should work full time and live in poverty.”

The UC Berkeley Labor Center found that 45% of workers in Wisconsin who would receive a pay boost if the Raise the Wage Act were passed are currently enrolled in one or more public assistance programs, including Medicaid, FoodShare and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Those working-class employees are supported by an estimated $2.4 billion in public assistance programs in Wisconsin, the Labor Center estimated.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce argues the biggest issue facing employers is a lack of skilled workers, and that the state should focus on training workers and incentivizing young professionals and college graduates to remain in the state.

The group did not respond to requests for comment. But in its legislative agenda, WMC stated that “raising the minimum wage will increase the cost of employing entry-level workers, resulting in fewer job opportunities for workers entering the workforce who need to build skills and experience for their career.”

In addition, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the reduction in employment would increase spending for programs such as unemployment compensation. It also projected the costs of goods and services would increase, leading consumers to limit purchases and employers to reduce their employment.

Another Democratic-backed proposal in Wisconsin would ensure tipped employees currently making $2.13 or $2.33 an hour are compensated the same minimum wage as the rest of the workforce. Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, and Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, are sponsors of the measure.

“This wage is simply not enough,” Larson said at a March press conference introducing the legislation. “Up to 60% of tipped workers report that their tipped wages are too low to meet unemployment thresholds, and 46% rely on public assistance for basic survival.”

Larissa Joanna, a restaurant worker and single mother of two, said such a change would have helped her. She described getting paid the sub-minimum wage at her past restaurant jobs as dehumanizing. Having to rely so heavily on tips from customers to support her family made her stressed and worried.

For the past three years Joanna has worked as a manager at a Madison restaurant that starts every employee at the $7.25 minimum wage, plus tips. But she continues to fight for a higher wage for others because she knows what it’s like to work hard and yet not earn enough to support a family.

And she can never make up for lost time with her sons — one of whom has autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and speech delays — while she worked two jobs just to make ends meet.

“Unfortunately I had to spend that time away from my children, and if we were all making better pay it would be beneficial for everyone as a whole, including our children,” Joanna said.

Year in review: The top Madison-area stories of 2020

It started out well enough. The Badgers were making a late-in-coming run at the Final Four. Hometown insurance behemoth American Family announced it was boosting its starting minimum wage to $20 an hour. Madison East Siders welcomed a new Pinney branch library.

The first two and a half months of the year feel like a different era, when news of a strange new virus infecting people in China was safely tucked away in the back pages of the newspaper and the heart-breaking images of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a 46-year-old Black man had yet to go viral.

Then came March and successive waves of closures, cancellations, lockdowns, furloughs, layoffs, infections and deaths. If the subsequent uprisings over the killing of George Floyd weren't enough to remind America that it has plenty of work to do to overcome racism, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha tragically emphasized the point. And a divisive presidential election carried the tone of the year at the end.

While it may not be a year to look back on with particular fondness, 2020 no doubt is one to remember. Here's a look back at some of the top stories in the Madison area as they occurred.

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It marked the fourth consecutive loss in the Rose Bowl for UW, and the first time since 2013 that the program lost its final two games of the year.

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Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain said Sunday the victim who officers found in an apartment at 1905 McKenna Blvd. shortly after 2:30 p.m. Saturday was a 20-year-old African American male.

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With the Green Bay defense failing to lay a hand on 49ers running back Raheem Mostert for much of the first half and the Aaron Rodgers-led offense committing two turnovers and failing to convert a third down yet again during a scoreless first 30 minutes, the Packers dug themselves a 27-0 halftime deficit on their way to a demoralizing 37-20 loss.

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Gutierrez, superintendent of the school district in Seguin, Texas, was announced Friday as the Madison School Board's pick to lead the district.

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The person returned to Dane County Regional Airport after a trip to Beijing Jan. 30 and went directly to UW Hospital's emergency room, officials said.

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This weekend's performances at the Alliant Energy Center will be the last with elephants in Dane County as a contract between the circus and the venue expires. 

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Tony Evers said he vetoed the legislation, which uses surplus revenue, because it doesn't invest in the state's schools. 

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Despite no Wisconsin cheeses finishing in the final top three, state producers dominated the competition, earning 45 gold medals out of 132 categories.

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This decision is unprecedented for Wisconsin's largest university and taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus.

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The closure order, to take effect no later than 5 p.m. on March 18, affects nearly 1 million Wisconsin children in grades K-12 in public and private schools.

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One was a man in his 50s from Fond du Lac County; the other was a man in his 90s from Ozaukee County.

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David A. Kahl, 53, is charged with first-degree intentional homicide.

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Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order represents a shift from the governor's position last week, when he said he did not plan on issuing such an order.

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Most voting locations saw few lines and smooth operations. But other places, notably Milwaukee, experienced significant delays, chaos and conditions that made it impossible for some voters to cast a ballot.

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Jill Karofsky's win over Dan Kelly cuts the court's conservative majority to 4-3, giving liberals a chance to take back control in 2023.

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The U.S. Air Force announced the final selection of the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing, capping more than three years of study and deep community division over the planes, which come with the promise of jobs and new construction but also noise and pollution.

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While applauded as a good first step, Democratic members, as well as public safety and health officials, have criticized the bill for not allocating more state funding to respond to the pandemic.

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For 30 years, "Ms. Milele" was the publisher of UMOJA magazine and a prominent leader in Madison's black community. She was "short in stature but mighty in force." 

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Free community testing for COVID-19 started at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison on Monday morning.

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Gov. Tony Evers and legislative Republicans will need to work quickly to come up with a replacement plan.

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The Vilas Zoo, Goodman Pool, beaches and movie theaters are among the places not opening yet.

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There were signs early Sunday that the violence was spreading into other parts of the city.

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"It’s clear they have important process issues to work out," the candidate said.

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School Board President Gloria Reyes said the decision to pull police from Madison's four main high schools is effective immediately. 

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The Madison School Board chose Carlton Jenkins, a superintendent of a suburban Twin Cities school district, over another finalist for the job. He starts Aug. 4.

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As a Dane County public health order requiring face coverings in all indoor spaces outside the home took effect Monday, businesses offered mixed views on mandates, though for many retailers it was business as (the new) usual.

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There was no update on the second victim from the shooting at Schroeder Road and Chapel Hill Road Saturday night. 

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Travis M. Christianson, 44, is tentatively charged with first-degree intentional homicide.

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Republican President Donald Trump also has caused controversy for saying he might deliver acceptance speech at White House.

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The girl was in a car that was struck by gunfire late Tuesday morning on East Washington Avenue.

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The conference decided — after meetings between presidents and athletic directors, and outcry from players, coaches, politicians and fans — to cancel the fall sports season and will attempt to move football to the spring semester.

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"The video that came out of Kenosha is absolutely horrific. I don’t understand how people can watch it and not be here," one Madison protester said. 

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The fifth-seeded Heat finished off an upset of the NBA’s best regular-season team Tuesday, topping the Milwaukee Bucks 103-94 in Game 5 of their East semifinal series — while Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league’s reigning MVP, couldn’t play because of a sprained right ankle.

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UW-Madison is pausing in-person instruction for at least two weeks and quarantining more than 2,200 students living in two dorms.

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Police are not recommending charges against Althea Bernstein, saying there is a difference between someone trying to deceive law enforcement and not being able to corroborate a report of a crime.

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The alternate care facility at State Fair Park in West Allis may begin taking patients Thursday.

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A small crowd Downtown Saturday morning before the race was called turned into hundreds of people honking horns, cheering and waving signs after Biden was declared the winner, while some Trump supporters turned out in protest.

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"We understand the eyes of the world will be on these Wisconsin counties over the next few weeks,"  Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said.

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St. Mary's and Meriter expect to get vaccine soon.

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The flurry of activity caps off a tumultuous post-election saga in Wisconsin that has now concluded.

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A look back at the year 2020 through the lens of Wisconsin State Journal photographers John Hart, Amber Arnold and Steve Apps

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