Maximum effort needs to be made for the minimum wage

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Julianne Malveaux

(NNPA)—It seems that the term “poverty” has been sidelined from our national discourse, even though 15 percent of all Americans, and 26 percent of African-Americans experience poverty. The Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into law on June 25, 1938, so perhaps 75 years later is a good time to explore the roots of the minimum wage and why it remains important.

The genesis of the Fair Labor Standards Act was a note a girl wrote in Bedford, Mass. when Franklin D. Roosevelt was campaigning for his second term as president. The note said, “I wish you could do something to help us girls…We have been working in a sewing factory. Up until a few weeks ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week…Today the 200 of us girls have been cut to $4, $5 and $6 a week.”

In the middle of the Great Depression, young women were earning between 10 and 15 cents an hour. Responding to the note, Roosevelt signed legislation that dealt with issues of the terms and conditions of work, including wages. The law limited weekly hours to 44, established the minimum wage at 25 cents an hour, and banned child labor. When the law was passed, it applied to industries that employed only a fifth of the workforce. Private household workers (or “domestics,” mostly African-American women), and farm workers (mostly African-American at that time, though later mostly Latino) were exempted from the law.

There was enormous resistance to the legislation. Indeed the bill was, at one point, described as “unconstitutional.” Roosevelt signed 121 bills, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, after Congress had adjourned. Essentially, FLSA restored textile workers, and many like them, to the $11 a week that was considered barely livable. In a fireside chat, Roosevelt chided the bill’s detractors, “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”

Fast forward. Now domestic workers are included in the Fair Labor Standards Act to the point that employers are required to issue these workers W-2 forms if they are regular workers, to withhold Social Security and other federally-mandated taxes from their pay, and to match Social Security contributions as required by law. Of course, many of these workers are paid informally, or “under the table,” and they make less than the minimum wage.

Those who receive tips as little as $30 a month in tips earn just $2.13 an hour. That’s certainly something to think about when providing your server between 15 and 20 percent at the end. Some restaurants may offer more than the minimum $2.13 an hour, but many do not pay as much as minimum wage (currently $7.25).

While agricultural workers should, technically, earn the minimum wage, there are enough exceptions to this provision that many agricultural workers do not earn $7.25 an hour. Additionally, undocumented immigrants have little leverage at the bargaining table. They earn less than the minimum wage when they are desperate for employment. Small farms are also exempt from paying the minimum wage.

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