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Romano: Minimum wage debate isn't simple, but the realities are stark

Protestors stand on the sidewalk Thursday in front of the McDonald’s at 11707 N 56th St. in Tampa to protest against low minimum wages. Union organizers in more than 100 cities across the country organized a strike by fast-food workers.
Protestors stand on the sidewalk Thursday in front of the McDonald’s at 11707 N 56th St. in Tampa to protest against low minimum wages. Union organizers in more than 100 cities across the country organized a strike by fast-food workers.
Published Sep. 6, 2014

Here, on the street corner, the volume is turned up.

Chants and shouts giving way to curses and confrontations. Activists protesting poverty-level wages are blocking an access road to a Temple Terrace shopping center.

Standing a few feet clear of the ruckus, a minimum-wage worker named Anthony Moore holds a protest sign aloft. Not in defiance, but to block the sun from 2-year-old daughter Taytay, who is trying to nap on his shoulder.

Over there, on the other side of the nation, the mood was lighter.

Billionaires had gathered a week earlier at a swanky resort in California where Koch Industries had invited U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to speak.

The Senate minority leader boasted of living in "the most free and open system'' in modern times because the Supreme Court has allowed corporations to pump hundreds of millions in campaign funds into the political process.

If Republicans gain control, McConnell suggested, the Senate can stop "debating all these gosh darn proposals … like raising the minimum wage.''

Perhaps a little context would help.

In 1980, the salary of a U.S. senator was $60,662. Today, it is $174,000. If members of Congress had increased the federal minimum wage at the same rate they gave themselves raises, our lowest-paid workers would be making $9.58 per hour today.

Instead, they're still at $7.25.

• • •

The minimum wage debate is not a simple one. Neither side has a monopoly on the facts.

Supporters of raising the minimum wage could cite studies from California-Berkeley and MIT that suggest higher pay means a healthier economy. Critics could produce their own studies that warn a higher minimum wage could result in a smaller workforce.

Meanwhile, a generation of workers tries to decide whether it's better to skip the electric or water bill this month.

Moore, 27, has been working at a Burger King in Hillsborough County for nearly a year. He took classes to get necessary food service certifications and was promoted to a shift manager two months ago. He gets up at 4 a.m. six days a week to catch a 4:30 a.m. bus in his slacks and tie so he can reach Burger King by 5:15 to begin setting up for the day.

His hourly pay?

It is Florida's minimum wage of $7.93 an hour, he said, the same pay he was getting when he was hired.

"It's almost as if the big bosses don't care,'' Moore said. "Last week, my water was cut off. I tell them, 'I'm not asking for days off, I'm not asking to be rich, all I'm asking for is fair pay for the hard work I'm doing. Y'all go home in your luxurious cars, and you have your nice houses, and I'm taking the bus home to my apartment in the 'hood.

"People look at us out here protesting, and they're like, 'You should have stayed in school and gotten a better job.' It doesn't always work that way.''

The "Fight for 15'' protest that Moore joined on Thursday was part of a national movement aimed at getting the minimum wage raised to $15 an hour.

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More than 100 fast food workers, health service employees, union organizers and assorted hangers-on joined the mid-day Tampa protest that lasted about 90 minutes and stretched from a McDonald's on 56th street to a Burger King on Fowler Avenue.

While the chances of a federal $15 minimum wage are remote, at best, there are indications that a gradual increase might have some momentum.

Seattle recently approved a $15 minimum wage to be phased in over seven years, and the sky did not fall. An upcoming ballot measure in San Francisco could raise the minimum wage to $12 next year and $15 by 2018.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states raised minimum wages in 2014 and another 28 states had bills introduced

For someone such as Nesi Nix, change can't come soon enough.

A single mother of three who works at a Taco Bell in Tampa, Nix, 25, points out that a higher wage would enable someone in her shoes to get off food stamps and save money for taxpayers.

"I'm doing whatever it takes to make a home for my kids, but it's a constant struggle,'' Nix said. "My (6-year-old) son sees what the other kids in school have. It hurts that I can't do the same things for him at Christmas or his birthday. It hurts like crazy.

"That's the thing I struggle with every day. He gets good grades, and I want to reward him somehow. I want to show him, 'Mommy sees you, and she's proud of you.' I don't want him to give up and just be the typical … kid you see on the street. I want him to have a successful life.''

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