RICHMOND – Athena Jones is the first person her clients see at the start of the day. She gets them out of bed, changes their clothes and makes them breakfast. Her workday consists of providing emotional and physical support, assisting clients with bathing and bathroom visits, and helping them be as independent as possible.
As a home-care worker, this is Jones’ job. She does it for minimum wage – $7.25 an hour.
An advocate for people who struggle to live on minimum wage, Jones traveled from Portsmouth to Richmond this week to speak to legislators about bills to raise the state minimum wage above the federally mandated rate. She said a raise would help her save money and give back to her community.
Jones said she can’t make ends meet on her salary as a home-care worker, so she has taken on a second job as a community organizer. When she is not caring for her clients, she is helping Portsmouth residents register to vote or solve neighborhood problems.
People at the bottom of the pay scale, Jones said, must make choices that others don’t – like deciding between paying the electricity bill and requesting an extension on their gas bill.
A single woman in her 40s, Jones lives a frugal lifestyle. She doesn’t have a car, and vacations aren’t a luxury she can afford. (She has gone 10 years without one.) Her biggest expenses are utilities and medical bills – expenses that she said keep her from “exhaling financially.”
Jones said living on minimum wage is like having a “cloud of need” hovering overhead, and it never seems to go away.
Others may argue that people living on minimum wage “need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” Jones said. But she added: “What if there isn’t a bootstrap? What if there aren’t shoes? Then what are you supposed to do?”
David Broder, president of the Virginia 512 local of the Service Employees International Union, supports workers like Jones.
“Raising the minimum wage means Virginia families will have more money to grow the economy and help their kids have a better future,” Broder said. “No one who works full time should be forced to live in poverty because of low wages. As states and localities across the country raise the minimum wage for millions of Americans, it’s past time that Virginia did the same.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 29 states have raised their minimum wage above $7.25 per hour. Some members of the General Assembly want Virginia to join the list.
Three bills before the House of Delegates would boost the minimum wage in Virginia. They are:
- HB 2309, sponsored by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church. It would raise the minimum wage to $11 per hour this July and eventually to $15 per hour by 2019.
- HB 1444, sponsored by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and 18 other Democrats. It would increase the minimum wage to $10 per hour this July 1 and then gradually to $15 per hour by 2021.
- HB 1771, sponsored by Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Reston, and 17 other Democrats. It would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 on Jan. 1, 2018. Under the legislation, beginning in 2020, Virginia’s minimum wage would be adjusted every two years to reflect increases in the consumer price index.
Those bills face an uphill battle. The Senate already has killed two bills aimed at raising the minimum wage.
Opponents of boosting the minimum wage fear that such laws will put a burden on businesses, prompting employers to lay off workers and raise prices. Indeed, that is what business representatives told the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Monday before the panel spiked legislation to increase the minimum wage in Virginia.
“Raising the minimum wage does not solve the problem – it only creates new problems,” said Ryan Dunn, a representative of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “There is no silver bullet for poverty.”
For years, academic researchers have debated whether boosting the minimum wage would hurt the economy.
In a 2014 book, Dale Belman of Michigan State University and Paul Wolfson of Dartmouth College concluded that a “moderate” increase in the minimum wage “has little or no effect on employment and hours.” They were unable to conclude if that holds true for a large increase in the minimum wage.
Several researchers compared states that raised the minimum wage with bordering states where the minimum wage stayed the same. In a seminal paper released in the 1990s, Princeton economists Alan Kreuger and David Card found that raising the minimum wage did not cause a loss of jobs in fast-food restaurants but the prices of meals increased.
In 2013, David Neumark of the University of California and William Wascher of the Federal Reserve Board published a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research challenging previous research methods. They said their evidence “still shows that minimum wages pose a tradeoff of higher wages for some against job losses for others.” An increase could help families get out of poverty but could cause other families to fall into poverty, Neumark and Wascher wrote.
While academics and legislators debate the issue, Jones continues doing her job. She said she has been a home-care worker for 12 years and takes great satisfaction in helping her home-bound clients live as independently as possible.
“God allowed me to be born into this profession, and I would have it no other way,” she said. “I could be president of the United States, and I would still want to be a home-care worker.”
By Haley Winn/Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.