Minimum Wage Rises in Nebraska — and For Some, So Does Hope

$30 a week: Minimum wage increase means that — and more. Read complete coverage in the Lincoln Journal Star.

Eric Bluford earns more than the minimum wage, but he hopes to get a bump, too, when Nebraska bumps the hourly minimum pay to $8.

Eric Bluford earns more than the minimum wage, but he hopes to get a bump, too, when Nebraska’s  minimum hourly pay rises to $8 on New Year’s Day and $9 an hour a year later.

By Bobby Caina Calvan | The Heartland Project

LINCOLN, Neb. — What would you give up if you had to live off a job paying $7.25 an hour, the current federal minimum wage?

The typical American would likely give up a lot of things. Eating out would be a luxury. Maybe leave the car parked and hop on a bike instead to save on money for gas. Maybe share an apartment with another low-wage earner. Vacations? Well, probably only in your dreams.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.3 million Americans worked jobs in 2013 that paid the federal minimum wage, or even less.

On New Year’s Day, Nebraska’s minimum wage will rise to $8 an hour – a 75-cent boost from the current federal minimum. In a year, the state’s minimum wage will rise a buck to $9 an hour, intended to deliver further economic relief to the 90,000 Nebraskans who now make less than $9 an hour.

In a package appearing in today’s Lincoln Journal Star, The Heartland Project introduces readers to Nebraskans like C.L. Baker, who works two part-time jobs – as a house cleaner and as a laundromat attendant. She is getting her life back in order after a divorce and other personal challenges, and the two low-paying jobs are all she could land. “It is what it is,” she told me.

Claudia Felix also cleans houses. She’d work two jobs if she could. But she’d have to pay for a sitter to care for her young children.

I spotted her family at a McDonald’s while interviewing a young man, a refugee from Sudan who wants to seize whatever opportunities our great country can offer him. In the meantime, he is putting himself through the school on the wages he earns as a shopping mall security guard.

Felix was with her three children and a nephew, and she had saved enough money for a breakfast of pancakes and scrambled eggs – cheaper to make at home, she acknowledged, but now and then it’s nice to take the kids out for a treat, she said.

Speaking in her native Spanish, she told me how difficult it is to raise a family on meager pay. She wants her children to develop careers and not suffer a life of menial labor – a fate to which she and her husband are resigned, she said.

The Journal Star has, of course, covered the minimum wage story several times before. But City Editor Todd Henricks wanted to go beyond policy and politics. He wanted to capture the voices of those whose lives would be affected by the new law.

It is never easy to talk about money. A couple of journalism students who volunteered for the assignment discovered just how difficult it is. Only one of the students managed to find a suitable story.

Many of the people I approached to interview for this package were reluctant to talk about how much (or how little) they earned – or reveal how they ended up with low-paying jobs. Some recounted stories of bad luck and broken marriages. Many were clearly caught in a cycle of poverty.

Some spoke freely, then had second thoughts about sharing their plight with a newspaper and with their neighbors. One woman said she didn’t want to embarrass her family, and a handful rescinded permission to use their stories.

But Felix was appreciative that I had shared some good news with her. She doesn’t have access to Spanish language news at home and she was unaware of the new law. She welcomed the higher pay: More money to provide for her three children.

But Baker wasn’t convinced the higher minimum wage would amount to good news. She worries that the higher pay would lead to higher prices for goods and services, as businesses raise prices to make up for the added labor costs.

Nebraska’s minimum wage seems paltry when compared to that in Seattle and San Francisco, which are poised to begin unrolling raises that will eventually bring the minimum wage to $15 an hour – more than double the federal rate, but still hardly a living wage in two of the country’s most expensive metropolises.

In all, 26 states will have minimum wages higher than the $7.25 federal minimum in 2015. That doesn’t count individual cities that have boosted minimum wages on their own.

Social justice advocates point to the disproportionate number of minimum wage earners – about 40 percent – who are Black, Latino or Asian American.

What’s more, 61 percent of those making minimum wage (or less) are women who mostly work in the retail and hospitality industries, including restaurants and bars. In Nebraska, restaurant and bar workers rely on the generosity or whims of customers to supplement the $2.13 hourly pay at their establishments.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 233,973 Nebraskans lived in poverty in 2012; that’s 13 percent of the state population. In 2013, the percentage increased to 13.2 percent – or 239,433 people.

In Lancaster County, home to Nebraska’s capital city, about 6,000 families live below the federal poverty level – many of them living on minimum wage.

A fulltime minimum wage job in 2014 brought in $15,080 a year – a few hundred dollars below the poverty level for a single parent. Under the state’s new $8 wage minimum, that amount would rise to $16,640 next year and to $18,720 the following year.

As my story reports, the rise in the minimum wage for 2015 translates to $30 more a week for those working 40 hours a week and earning the current $7.25 federal minimum wage.

On the federal level, President Obama has proposed a $10.10 national minimum wage that is unlikely to happen since Republicans, who generally oppose raising the wage requirement, won control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress in the November election.