TAMPA, Florida — People like Shaneeka Rainer are often told that they shouldn’t try to get the minimum wage increased because it only really applies to teenagers working entry-level jobs. That indeed may have described Rainer 10 years ago, when he first entered the workforce. But a decade after he got his first job in fast food, Rainer still finds himself working at Arby’s for minimum wage.
In other words, Rainer has worked an entire decade receiving only one raise: when Congress increased the minimum wage in 2007.
And so he showed up at his congressman’s public forum on Tuesday to ask Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL) to finally give him and millions of other low-income Americans a raise.
Ross, who is seeking a third term representing Tampa’s northwest suburbs, was unmoved by Rainer’s plea. “It’s not right,” the Florida Republican said. “If we are going to make it a living wage, who’s going to pay for it?”
An audience member declared that he’d gladly pay slightly more for a hamburger in order to increase the minimum wage, prompting applause from the crowd.
Rainer asked the congressman whether he would be willing to come work at Arby’s with him for one day so he can see how difficult minimum wage work is, but Ross demurred. Instead, he railed against the very notion of a minimum wage and even the concept of labor laws in general. “If the government’s going to tell me how much I can get paid and when I can work and when I can’t work, then we have a serious problem in this country,” Ross said.
RAINER: Would you support the Obama act of raising the federal minimum wage?
ROSS: No. […] I think it would do more harm to our economy than anything. You work at Arby’s, the cost of products, the cost of services are going to go up. […] If we are going to make it a living wage, who’s going to pay for it? Who’s going to pay for it?
AUDIENCEMEMBER: I will. I’ll pay 20 cents extra for a hamburger. [Applause]
RAINER: He said he’ll pay. So if he’ll pay, I’m going to work every day busting my butt. I want to know, would you take a walk in my shoes? Lay your tie and your suit down, just for a day, 24 hours, and take a walk in my shoes. The people that I work with, we’re keeping the economy floating and going in the cycle. But the people that hire, they’re just paying money, just throwing money. But I’m actually working every day. So why wouldn’t you support it?
ROSS: Because it’s not right. Economically, it’s not right. It does more harm to our economy. […] If the government’s going to tell me how much I can get paid and when I can work and when I can’t work, then we have a serious problem in this country.
“I felt like he blew off my question,” Rainer told ThinkProgress after the town hall. “He doesn’t understand what it’s like.”
Indeed, for millions of workers, a stagnant minimum wage is actually a falling real wage. That’s because the minimum wage isn’t indexed to inflation, so $7.25 is worth about 6 percent less in 2012 than it was in 2009, for instance.
Over the past few decades, the lower and middle classes haven’t just seen dwindling incomes, but also declining opportunities for advancement. Stories like Rainer’s of workers being stuck in minimum wage jobs for years are increasingly common.
Towards the end of our conversation, Rainer’s exasperation became apparent. “I bust my butt for these people everyday,” he said in disbelief that lawmakers like Ross don’t think he deserves a raise. “Come down to Arby’s for 24 hours. Take the broom, wipe down the bathroom. See what it’s like.”