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It's been eight years since fast food workers started calling for a $15 minimum wage. And this fall, in the midst of the pandemic, the movement scored one of its biggest victories yet. Florida became the eighth state in the country to approve a $15-an-hour minimum wage. They're going to have to do so by 2026. What does that mean for the rest of the country? NPR's Andrea Hsu takes a look.
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: In the days before the election, Terrence Wise was busy sending text messages, lots of them.
TERRENCE WISE: We texted thousands of folks down in Florida from here in Kansas City.
HSU: Where he's a longtime activist with the Fight For 15, the union-backed campaign that started in 2012.
WISE: If we can get in the Deep South, you know, down there in Florida, it's bringing all workers closer to $15 an hour minimum wage on a national level.
HSU: The pandemic has also brought the cause momentum. Low-wage workers staffing grocery stores and fast food joints and nursing homes have been hailed as heroes. Wise has worked at McDonald's for nine years. And he's been in the spotlight before, including at a White House summit on workers, where he got to introduce President Obama.
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WISE: Was that for me or him?
HSU: Five years later, he's now a manager. But his pay is still less than $15 an hour. And he is still having trouble getting by. He says his family was evicted from their home earlier this year. Even in Florida, the minimum wage won't reach $15 dollars 2026. But for now, it remains the goal.
WISE: We need it to be the floor - not the ceiling but the floor for all workers. You know, get the ball rolling.
ASHLEY SHELTON: Yeah, it gives me hope. We're encouraged.
HSU: Ashley Shelton is with the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice in Louisiana, where the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour stands. And here is where hope crashes up against reality.
SHELTON: So we've tried $15. We've tried a graduated increase, you know, starting with, like, $8 or $8.15.
HSU: To no avail. Louisiana also bans local governments from setting their own minimum wage. Now, as much as low-wage workers are struggling, so, too, are small businesses. Many of them say a $15 minimum wage would be devastating.
TINA MILLER: We've run the numbers. And it would potentially put us out of business.
HSU: Tina Miller and her husband own Walkabout Outfitter, an outdoor equipment and clothing store with six locations across central and southern Virginia.
MILLER: And especially after this COVID. I mean, we have been hit so hard.
HSU: At one point, business was down 90%. To stay afloat, they took out a bunch of loans and laid off a lot of their staff. They haven't paid themselves since March.
MILLER: We're still trying to dig ourselves out of a hole.
HSU: Now is the time to support small businesses, she says. Why not let the market decide the wages? Her lowest-paid employees are often students working part time. They make $10 an hour. But Virginia's minimum wage will rise to $12 an hour over the next two years. And pushing those bottom wages up, Miller says, will push all of her wages up. In big cities, she says, yeah, a $15 starting salary might make sense, but...
MILLER: Here in our area, you can buy a house for $60,000, $70,000. So it's a very different area. So mandating it across the board is frightening.
HSU: President-elect Biden does support a $15 federal minimum wage, but getting it through the Senate - that's the hurdle. So for now, the fight remains at the state and local level and with workers and employers themselves. Andrea HSU, NPR News.
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