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September 1, 2014

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Heard Elsewhere:

Low-wage workers have a just and necessary cause

After Terrance Wise walked off the job to protest his pay a few weeks ago, he was offered a promotion and a raise.

He could have moved up to a manager’s role at his Burger King, one of two fast-food jobs he works, Wise said. The promotion would have come with a measly 20-cents-an-hour raise, bringing his hourly pay to $9.45.

Wise turned down the offer. On Thursday, the father of three skipped work again and joined more than 300 fast-food workers and their supporters in rallies and marches at different locations around Kansas City, calling for better pay and benefits.

Maybe the protests here and in other cities will amount to just a blip on the nation’s conscience. Or perhaps 2013 will be remembered as the year low-wage workers made their voices heard.

It should be the latter; their cause is just and necessary. Too many people in America get paid too little for the work they do. Low salaries are harming families, depressing the nation’s economy and forcing people onto government aid.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, half of the jobs in the United States pay less than $34,000 a year. One-fourth of them pay less than $23,000 annually, below the poverty level for a family of four.

Families with two incomes do better, of course, and encouraging stable partnerships should be part of the conversation. But poverty-level wages make it daunting even for two-income families to maintain a home, pay expenses and hope to get their children the higher education they will need to move up.

For about 15 million Americans who work at or near the minimum wage, the prospects are truly abysmal. At $7.25 an hour at the federal level and 10 cents higher than that in Missouri (Kansas uses the federal rate), minimum-wage pay is worth less now than it was in the late 1960s. If it had kept pace with inflation since then, it would have topped $10 an hour.

The situation won’t fix itself. Sixty percent of the jobs gained in the recovery since 2008 were low-wage. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that seven of 10 growth occupations through 2020 will come in fields, like retail and fast-food restaurants, that usually pay workers poorly.

Raising the minimum wage is the essential first step. President Barack Obama has proposed $9 an hour. Ten dollars or more would be better.

Americans should let it be known, to corporate leaders and elected officials, that they stand in favor of fair pay for the people who cook and serve their food, ring up their purchases at stores and assist in other ways.

Companies that reward executives with lavish compensation packages — the CEO of McDonald’s is up to $13.8 million — can afford to pay front-line workers $10 or more an hour.

For many low-wage workers, there is no such thing as a holiday, or extra pay for working one. All the more reason for a conversation about fairness on the front lines.

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