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Democrats in Congress are pushing to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. They also want to tie further increases to the cost of living. At the same time, minimum wage efforts are underway in more than a dozen states and cities. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea caught up with several activists who say, in blue states and red, the moment for a wage hike has arrived.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: You never know where you might find a volunteer with a clipboard looking for signatures, trying to get a referendum on the local ballot. I caught up with Ed Flanagan on his cellphone in the town of North Pole, Alaska.
ED FLANAGAN: OK. Well, I'm out in what's called the North Pole transfer station. This facility has about 50 metal dumpsters arranged in a fenced area. Folks back up and throw their household trash in there. This is a very busy place.
GONYEA: There's no residential trash pick up here, so people have to haul their own. So for Flanagan, it's a great place to do some politicking for the minimum wage hike his group hopes to get on the August primary ballot. A car pulls up.
FLANAGAN: Hang on just a second. Hello. We're trying to raise the minimum wage. Are you a registered voter? OK. Have a good day.
GONYEA: Thousands of miles away, Lew Finfer spoke to me from his office in Massachusetts. He's with a coalition looking to get a minimum wage hike on the November ballot there.
LEW FINFER: This would be something like 700,000 people in Massachusetts who earn between eight and 10.50 would get a raise. And there would be a billion dollars that would go back into the economy because people would spend it locally.
GONYEA: One of those Massachusetts workers who would benefit is 41-year-old Patty Federico. She makes 9.10 an hour at a movie theater. She says they won't put her on full time.
PATTY FEDERICO: Right now, with the money that I'm making, it just is a nightmare. It's not paying the bills. So I am desperately looking for a full-time job.
GONYEA: Elsewhere, there are minimum wage hike campaigns in South Dakota, Illinois, Minnesota, Hawaii, Idaho, New Mexico, Maryland and several cities. There's also Arkansas, where the current state minimum wage is a dollar an hour less than the federal level. Stephen Copley heads the Give Arkansas a Raise Now coalition.
STEPHEN COPLEY: No, that's right. If any state needs an increase, we do. And you know, Arkansas traditionally has been a pretty poor state anyway. So we have a number of folks who are working hard and, you know, they're trying to share in the American dream but they just can't make ends meet.
GONYEA: Arkansas also has a hotly contested U.S. Senate race this year. Some Democrats hope a referendum can boost turnout for their side in 2014, though political analysts say that's hardly a sure bet. Anywhere a minimum wage increase is on the ballot, expect an aggressive campaign to defeat it. At a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event in Washington this week, the organization's Randall Johnson laid out the counter-argument.
RANDALL JOHNSON: Employers will react to this either by hiring less people or by reducing benefits and payroll in different ways to adjust to the money they've got to pay for this. So it's not a free lunch. And the people on Capitol Hill who push this understand it but they just don't want to admit it.
GONYEA: But Patty Federico, that movie theater employee in Massachusetts, says she hopes voters are swayed by the numbers as she has to view them.
FEDERICO: It's basically starting to get you over that hurdle. Where, say like you need an extra 200 a week, at least you'll be making an extra 50. So your deficit is not as bad, but it is still bad.
GONYEA: Polls do show strong support for increasing the minimum wage nationally. Federico says they just have to make sure that translates into votes. Don Gonyea, NPR News.
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