In September, 100 workers filed a complaint with the administration of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) claiming that the minimum wage is so low that it violates a state statute. On Monday, Walker’s administration rejected the complaint without contacting any of the workers.
Wisconsin’s state statute says that, “Every wage paid or agreed to be paid by any employer to any employee… shall be not less than a living wage.” Anyone can file a complaint saying that it isn’t enough, and the workers and worker groups claimed that the current $7.25 an hour level isn’t sufficient. After such a complaint is filed, the governor has 20 days to investigate and take action.
But on Monday, the Department of Workforce Development’s (DWD) Equal Rights Division Administrator Robert Rodriguez responded in a letter, saying, “The Department has determined that there is no reasonable cause to believe that the wages paid to the complainants are not a living wage.” In a press release, the department says it reviewed the documents submitted in the complaint and found, “Most of the statements list wages that are in excess of the current minimum wage – as high as $15.07 an hour. Many of the statements reference items that go beyond basic necessities; others cite receiving public aid or additional sources of income.” It added, “Conversely, several studies that have been widely reported on point to significant job losses as a result of an increase in the minimum wage.”
While the investigation reviewed the documents, it didn’t reach out to any of the workers to talk to them about their wages. In a response to the DWD’s announcement, Wisconsin Jobs Now said, “To issue this determination without even so much as a follow-up phone call to question or clarify any of the 100 Wisconsin workers who filed complaints is not only appalling, it is irresponsible.”
It’s hard to see, from the complaints workers provided to ThinkProgress, what might qualify as a more-than-basic need. Denise Merchant said she makes $7.25 an hour and often puts off buying diabetes test strips because she can’t afford them and couldn’t afford to fix her car when it broke down two months ago. Dan’l Scott makes $7.70 an hour and is homeless. Marvin Mayes makes $7.45 an hour sometimes has to go without buying groceries in order to make rent. Even those with higher wages described struggling: Carolyn Jackson makes $12 an hour but risks getting her lights and phone turned off because she has to choose between buying food and paying bills, plus she forgoes medication for her diabetes in order to get her son’s medication.
The minimum wage used to be able to keep a family of two or three out of poverty, but $7.25 an hour won’t even keep a single parent above that line today. While higher wages are certainly better, even a $15 an hour wage will add up to just $31,200 a year. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculates that a living wage for the state’s capitol of Madison, for example, would have to be $21.17 an hour for a single parent.
While the DWD doesn’t clarify what items it deems unnecessary, it’s a common idea that the poor aren’t poor if they buy items like microwaves, internet access, televisions, or refrigerators. Yet those aren’t the items straining their budgets. For low-income families with children, the biggest expenses are housing, food, and child care and education. In fact, the poor spend a larger share of their budgets on the necessities and less on luxuries like eating out and entertainment than the better off.
The concerns raised about higher wages killing jobs may be unfounded. Multiple studies that looked at state-level increases found no impact on employment, and a paper that reviewed all of the research on the minimum wage found that in aggregate, there was about zero impact on jobs. Those states that raised their wages at the beginning of this year are experiencing faster job growth than those that didn’t.
The groups plan to keep pressing. “As far as next steps, we are looking into all of the legal options,” Lisa Lucas, a spokesperson for Wisconsin Jobs Now, said in an email to ThinkProgress. “This is definitely not over. Governor Walker has a responsibility to ensure that all Wisconsinites are able to live off of their wages.”