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Biden To Call For Raising Federal Minimum Wage To $15 An Hour

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, along with outlining his vaccination plans this week, President-elect Biden also laid out some economic priorities. Among them, he's asking Congress to hike the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Today, fast-food cashiers and cooks are staging strikes around the country to press him and Congress to follow through. NPR's Alina Selyukh is here to tell us more on this story. Hey, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello, hello.

KELLY: So tell us more. What happened in these walkouts today?

SELYUKH: So the strikes today were mainly virtual because of the new coronavirus surges, so folks who were not working were joining Zoom meetings and honking car caravans, and they were calling for higher wages, more paid sick leave. And this is part of a decade-long now campaign called the Fight For $15 and a Union, a coalition of workers in fast-food, retail, home health. They're backed by the Service Employees International Union, but they're not in a union. And today's action was symbolic. Workers wanted to mark the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., which is today, and they also want to ramp up the pressure on the incoming administration to raise the minimum wage.

I talked to Taiwanna Milligan from South Carolina. She's worked at McDonald's for about eight years.

TAIWANNA MILLIGAN: Any which way we try to make ends meet, it's still a struggle. Living where your rent is six or $700 - how can you do that when you're only making 7.25?

SELYUKH: Seven dollars and 25 cents is currently the federal minimum wage. Milligan makes a little more - 8.75 an hour - but says it's been difficult to support a family, look after her elderly mother and a son who needs hospital care. And making $15 an hour would make a huge difference.

KELLY: Well, do we know how big a priority this is, given everything else on Joe Biden's plate?

SELYUKH: Biden has campaigned on this. And last night he did a power play, and he put that $15 minimum wage into his coronavirus relief proposal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: If you work for less than $15 an hour and work 40 hours a week, you're living in poverty.

KELLY: Alina, did you just call Biden's move a power play? Why?

SELYUKH: I did because the federal minimum wage has not changed in going on 12 years. And here's Biden proposing to change it finally, but he's proposing to more than double it, even if that happens over time. And then he puts those big policy change into a COVID relief plan.

And there are two things happening right now. We're in a coronavirus pandemic, and you've got a lot of people showing up to work to the front lines of the pandemic. They're making minimum wage. They're not getting extra pay for doing that. At the same time, you've got many small businesses on the ropes. Shops, hotels, restaurants - they're struggling and closing, and business groups are using that to say big wage hikes are not something they can afford right now.

And what we don't know is how Congress will act on Biden's proposal. Democrats now do have the majority in both the House and the Senate. And perhaps they take on the full package through what's called budget reconciliation, where the simple majority may be enough. But even among Democrats, some moderates have in the past taken issue with the $15 figure.

KELLY: Yeah. Where is public opinion overall on this? Do people who want to raise the minimum wage?

SELYUKH: Raising the federal minimum wage is widely popular. Even the Chamber of Commerce this week said they're open to updating the federal wage minimum to less than 15. Some companies have voluntarily gone for 15, like Target, Amazon, Costco. Starbucks is now working toward it. This year, half of the states are raising their wages. Many parts of the country have already surpassed the federal minimum. A few states did actually go for $15. And Biden actually cited Florida, where voters in November went for Donald Trump as president but then at the same time voted to raise the state minimum to $15 over the next five years.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Alina.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Alina Selyukh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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