$15 is the difference between “essential” and expendable.

Giving up on raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour would be failing frontline workers who bore the brunt of this pandemic. We owe them better.

Early in the pandemic, there was a saccharine trope making the rounds: “we’re all in this together!” You’d hear it from celebrities and politicians. It wasn’t wrong per se—the pandemic has affected everyone—but some people are a lot more in this. Pretending that those of us wading comfortably in the shallows are in this like those who are drowning in the deep undermines just how profoundly they are suffering.

For the privileged, this pandemic meant work behind a computer in an office building became...work behind a computer in your home. Indeed, many people whose jobs came with a little extra to stow away in savings saw the value of those savings skyrocket with the stock market. But the pandemic punished none like it did low-income workers. Millions lost their jobs—and those who didn’t were forced to brave the risk of illness in restaurant kitchens, grocery store checkouts, or Amazon distribution centers. Life vs. livelihood became a choice we forced people to make every day. And it wasn’t just their lives, but the lives of the people in their households—parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren. 

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To take the edge off of this double-jeopardy, we came up with another term: “essential workers.” Essential is a powerful word, rooted in the essence—the fundamental life-blood—of a thing.

That term has always felt more like a flimsy rhetorical ploy to justify the impossible choices we’ve foisted on poor people in this pandemic. Based on how our society has treated “essential” workers, what we seem to really mean is “expendable.”

But when the Biden-Harris Administration decided to include an effort to raise the federal minimum wage as part of the $1.9 Trillion “American Rescue Plan” COVID-19 relief package, I thought perhaps we were finally going to make good on treating low-wage workers as essential. Finally, the longtime #FightFor15 effort would succeed. Sure, it was attached to an emergency, must-pass piece of legislation. But what is “relief” for our “essential workers” if not paying them the bare minimum of what they deserve?  

And yes, it’s the bare minimum. If you were to work the full time equivalent of 40 hours a week at $15/hour for 50 weeks with two weeks left for vacation, you’d make a whopping…$30,000 a year. We excuse this by arguing that minimum wage jobs aren’t intended to be “careers”—selling the narrative that these jobs are filled by high schoolers. Except that so many minimum wage jobs are careers. Our economy has become so fundamentally unequal, with such limited opportunity for workers at the very bottom, that many are stuck trying to raise a family with jobs at Walmart, the local diner, or Amazon.

Rather than getting basic relief out to struggling Americans, GOP Senators, represented by Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, are more interested in clearing Donald Trump after he led a terrorist insurrection on the Capitol. So COVID 19 relief, and this minimum wage increase, has to pass through budget reconciliation—a pathway that allows bills to be passed by a filibuster-proof majority vote if they concern the federal budget. But over the weekend, the Senate parliamentarian, an obscure unelected official responsible for interpreting Senate rules, put the kibosh on raising the federal minimum wage by arguing that it’s not sufficiently budget-related, which leaves it vulnerable to being stripped out of the bill. 

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In response, Senate Democrats appear ready to walk away from the $15 wage increase and pass the bill without the relief for low-wage workers. But here’s the thing: they don’t have to—they’re choosing to. 

Senate Democrats actually have several options to do anything but walk away. Vice President Harris, in her role as the Presiding Officer of the Senate, has the final decision making authority and could overrule the Parliamentarian. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could appoint a new Parliamentarian. They could reformulate a tax on major corporations who choose not to pay the $15/hour wage. They could even...eliminate the filibuster—which would do away with the need to pass this through Budget reconciliation in the first place. 

The simplest approach here is to overrule the Parliamentarian. And there’s plenty of precedent for this. In 2017—yes, that recent—Senate Republicans overruled the Parliamentarian to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees. 

Never mind the fact that the Congressional Budget Office, which is responsible for assessing the overall budget impacts of proposed legislation, suggested in a report that raising the minimum wage would certainly affect the budget. But more fundamentally—who gives a damn what some obscure unelected official thinks? “Essential workers” need and deserve that raise. They’ve been struggling to make it through and pandemic relief has to include them, too. Fighting for 15 is the difference between calling them essential and meaning it.

Twenty-three Congresspeople, including Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman and others wrote a letter to that end yesterday. Here’s Rep. Khanna:

“This ruling is a bridge too far. We’ve been asked, politely but firmly, to compromise on nearly all of our principles & goals. Not this time. If we don’t overrule the Senate parliamentarian, we are condoning poverty wages for millions of Americans. That’s why I’m leading my colleagues in urging the Administration to lean on the clear precedent and overrule this misguided decision. Give America a raise.”

This is a matter of political will. So far, the Biden-Harris Administration has taken many of the right steps toward cleaning up the trash bag of diapers on a hot day the previous administration left them. And yet proposing legislation is different from fighting for it. Right now, 32 million Americans who’ve been fighting just to survive this pandemic—literally—need the White House and Senate to fight for $15. 

Otherwise, it’ll mean that “essential” always just meant expendable.

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