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A higher federal minimum wage makes sense, and not just for Alaskans

Thomas E. Perez
OPINION: Raising the federal minimum wage would make a difference in the lives of 28 million people, including those of every single Alaska resident. US Department of Labor

It used to be that you could support a family on a minimum wage salary. Today, a minimum wage worker has to make a choice every day: Buy a gallon of milk for the kids, or buy a gallon of gas to get to work.

The current national minimum wage, frozen at $7.25 per hour since 2009, simply hasn’t kept up with inflation. As a matter of fact, its purchasing power has declined by one-third since the 1960s, and it’s worth less today than it was in 1981. Bus fare has certainly gone up since 1981. Same with the price of a dozen eggs, or a week of child care. Landlords aren’t sending out rent decreases. And yet the value of the minimum wage is eroding.

It’s time to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, which would make a difference in the lives of 28 million people, including more than 731,000 Alaska residents.

President Obama first asked Congress last year to increase the minimum wage but that call has fallen on deaf ears. Fortunately, people around the country aren’t waiting. A national movement, drawing its strength from grassroots energy, is inspiring states, local governments and forward-looking businesses to show leadership where Congress hasn’t.

Thirteen states plus the District of Columbia have passed new laws increasing their state minimum wages over the last year and a half. More than 7 million workers total will benefit from those increases.

In November, Alaskans will vote on a ballot measure to raise the state minimum wage to $8.75 per hour in 2015, to $9.75 per hour in 2016 and indexing it to inflation thereafter.

A higher minimum wage is pro-business as well as pro-worker. Employers large and small, debunking the conventional wisdom, have embraced a higher minimum wage and acted on their own to raise their employees’ pay. From national brands like Costco and the Gap, to the Ace Hardware store just a mile away from my office, companies are giving their workers a raise not just because it’s the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do for the bottom line. It improves morale, productivity and customer service; it reduces absenteeism, turnover and training costs.

Besides, many employers believe that the people who make or sell their products ought to make enough money to buy them. In an economy driven by consumer demand, what any business needs most are customers. When working families have more money in their pockets, they pump it right back into the economy. They spend it on goods and services in their communities -- and that helps businesses grow, which creates more jobs.

In addition to asking Congress to act, President Obama is doing what he can to help more workers get a raise. He signed an executive order, which we at the Labor Department are in the process of implementing, to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for private sector workers on federal contracts. It’s hard to argue against our rationale: If you serve meals to our troops for a living, you shouldn’t have to go on food stamps in order to serve a meal to your family at home.

As we celebrate Labor Day, the holiday that honors the working men and women who contribute to the strength and prosperity of our nation, let’s honor them in a real and meaningful way: Let’s give them a raise.

Thomas E. Perez is the U.S. secretary of labor.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.