Rosenblum: A realistic view of the minimum wage hike

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 23, 2014 - 8:56 PM

Before Gov. Mark Dayton signed Minnesota’s historic minimum wage bill, raising the hourly rate from $6.15 to $9.50 by 2016, Abera Siyoum awoke at 2:45 a.m. every day for his two-job, 60-hour workweek.

Now that the bill has been signed, Siyoum will awaken at 2:45 a.m. every day for his two-job, 60-hour workweek.

Siyoum, 36, is grateful, as we all should be, that the long-fought battle has been won. It’s a battle that turned the soft-spoken father of two young children into a confident activist.

But he’s a realist, too. While the wage increase will benefit more than 325,000 Minnesotans, “it will not stop most of us from working two jobs to cover the rent,” said Siyoum, of St. Paul.

For that to happen, he’d need to make $15 an hour, at least.

So let’s celebrate, then get back to work. The fight to level the playing field is far from over.

Dayton signed the bill April 14 to increase the minimum wage in two increments over the next two years. Until now, Minnesota has had one of the nations’ lowest hourly wages, coupled with one of the Midwest’s highest rental costs.

“People are excited, because any raise is better than nothing,” said Dan Mendez Moore, a spokesman with SEIU Local 26, the state’s property services union. But he noted that most workers still will have no health insurance, no sick days, no vacation time.

“It doesn’t make the employer listen to your concerns,” Moore said. “It just forces them to pay you a little more. We fought for something and were able to win it, but there’s no reason why people have to work so hard to just remain at the floor.”

The Minnesota Housing Partnership released an eye-opening report in late March that supports Moore’s contention. Even with the boost to $9.50 an hour, a minimum wage worker still must toil 69 hours a week to cover rent and utilities on a modest two-bedroom apartment. The finding came from an affordability study titled, “Minnesota Out of Reach 2014.”

Still, Moore said, the minimum wage victory gave lots of low-income workers, many of them immigrants, a confidence boost and a taste of the American democratic process at its best.

Siyoum, who moved from Ethiopia in 2011, hopes to one day escape poverty, and he’s working very hard to do that.

Every morning, he wakes up at 2:45 to get to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by 4 a.m. There, he works as a $7.25-an-hour cart driver until 12:30 p.m. He then goes home to spend time with his family before starting his second job at 3:30 p.m. as a $12.85-an-hour security guard.

He was working 76 hours a week until the security company cut 16 hours from his schedule. That meant a stinging loss of about $200 a week. Siyoum drives a car with 300,000 miles on it (“It works!” he said with a laugh) and shops at discount grocers Aldi and Sam’s Club for food, diapers and milk. His family could not survive without EBT (food stamps), he said. Before getting his second job, they occasionally visited a food shelf.

For fun, he walks with his kids along the Mississippi River. No cable TV. His prepaid cellphone plan has been disconnected twice. He worries most about paying the rent. He knows people who have worked two, three jobs like this for 15 years.

He got angry for them. “Why don’t people have rights?” he wondered.

He spoke at a news conference in support of the minimum wage hike the day President Obama was in town. “We have families, but we don’t have time to even raise our children,” he said. “Sixty, eighty hours a week, it’s too much.”

Siyoum envisions a better, easier future. “For me,” said Siyoum, who sleeps five hours a night, “the American dream is getting paid for what I do with a living wage. I could buy my own home, raise my children in a better way.”

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