When news broke that Florida voters had approved a ballot measure raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Terrence Wise celebrated from 1,000 miles away.
"If we can get it 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," says Wise, a McDonald's worker in Kansas City, Mo., and a leading voice of the Fight for $15 movement.
Eight years after fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City and began calling for a $15 minimum wage, the passage of the Florida ballot initiative came as a big victory. Florida is the first state in the South and the eighth state overall to adopt such a measure.
But the wage hike is a gradual one. It won't reach $15 until 2026. And the path forward for a nationwide $15 minimum wage is uncertain. In a year when both low-wage workers and small businesses are struggling, there is no shortage of optimism or dread surrounding the issue.
At Walkabout Outfitter, an outdoor equipment and clothing retailer based in Lexington, Va., Tina Miller pays an entry-level wage of $10 an hour. Most of the employees earning that wage are students working part time, she says.
But she's already trying to figure out how she's going to accommodate state-mandated wage hikes that are headed her way. Virginia's minimum wage, currently $7.25, is set to rise to $12 an hour by 2023, and to $15 an hour by 2026, pending reauthorization by the state Legislature.
"We've run the numbers, and you know, it would potentially put us out of business," Miller says.
In big metropolitan areas, a $15 starting salary might make sense, she says, but not in rural Virginia.
"Here in our area, you can buy a house for $60,000 to $70,000, so it's a very different area," she says. "Mandating it across the board is frightening."
Miller and her husband, Kirk, started the business in 2005 and have since grown to six locations across southern and central Virginia, fending off competition from big-box stores and retail giants such as Amazon. The pandemic nearly broke them.
At one point, business was down 90%. To keep their doors open, they took out loans and laid off most of their staff. Miller and her husband haven't paid themselves since March, dipping into savings to cover living expenses.
"We always had to work hard to keep a small business afloat. But certainly, it's been beyond challenging," Miller says.
How soon other business owners will have to confront higher wage mandates depends on where they are.
More than two dozen states and nearly 50 localities have a wage floor that is higher than the federal minimum wage, which has been stagnant at $7.25 since 2009. The East and West coasts have the highest minimum wages, whereas the lowest are found throughout the South.
Last year, the House of Representatives passed a bill to raise the federal minimum to $15 by 2025, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to take it up, calling it a jobs killer. As it is, fewer than 2% of hourly paid workers actually earn the federal minimum wage, according to the Labor Department.
Louisiana is one of five Southern states that haven't set their own wage floors, so the $7.25 federal minimum wage stands. Efforts to set a higher minimum wage or even to remove a state ban on localities setting their own have been blocked by Republicans in the state Legislature.
"There have been any number of different ways that we've tried to move the needle on this issue and have just been unsuccessful," says Ashley Shelton, executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice in Baton Rouge, which has been advocating for a higher minimum wage.
It's not for lack of popular support. A Louisiana State University poll found 81% of Louisiana residents support raising the minimum wage to $8.50, and 59% support raising it to $15. But unlike in Florida, ballot measures in Louisiana require approval from two-thirds of the state Legislature, both chambers of which are controlled by Republicans.
Still, Shelton is encouraged by what happened in Florida — a state that went for President Trump also voted 61% in favor of a $15 minimum wage.
"There's an awakening that's happening," she says. "There's certainly a growing conversation about what's next and how can people survive."
Wise, the McDonald's worker, has been with the Fight for $15 campaign almost since the beginning. He is now a guest services manager at McDonald's, but he has yet to get an hourly wage of $15. In the nine years he's worked there his wages have risen gradually, but it's not enough. Earlier this year, he says, his family was evicted and spent several months living with his brother-in-law.
Stories such as his have led people to recognize that the minimum wage is far short of a living wage, says Allynn Umel, organizing director of the Fight for $15.
"[It] really comes down to the power of workers' voices who have absolutely been strengthened during this pandemic, where so many of them have put their lives on the line to keep our economy going," she says.
President-elect Joe Biden supports a $15 federal minimum wage. At his campaign kickoff rally last year in Pittsburgh, he told a crowd of union workers that it was "well past time" the minimum wage rise to $15 nationally.
But as with so many campaign promises, what happens next may not be within his control. The fate of the $15 federal minimum wage almost certainly lies with the next Senate.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "FOGGY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.