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Workers Are Forcing Employers to Pay Them a Living Wage

No thanks to the federal government, the average wage for service workers has exceeded $15/hour for the first time

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Photo: Patrick T. Fallon / AFP (Getty Images)

Democrats failed to pass a $15 minimum wage earlier this year, but workers are forcing employers to raise wages on their own by essentially withholding their labor until conditions improve.

According to the Washington Post, the average pay for restaurant and grocery store workers recently topped $15 an hour for the first time ever, a rise fueled by what many have termed a “worker shortage.” But while some employers and conservative politicians may blame extended unemployment benefits and stimulus checks on Americans not returning to work, people’s reasons for staying home are more complicated.

Indeed, unemployment checks and savings are making some workers more selective about what jobs they’ll take—or if they’ll apply to any at all. This is only a problem for those who consider work to be a moral requirement, as well as an economic one. (It’s also worth nothing that states that have cut unemployment benefits aren’t necessarily seeing more people return to work either.) Other workers, however, are hesitant about rejoining the labor market because of childcare costs, or uneasiness about exposure to covid. And then there are those who are finding that frustrated employers are often unwilling to do the one thing that would make the jobs they’re offering more appealing: raise wages.

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It seems some companies have finally begun to give in. The Post reports that some 80 percent of American workers are now paid at least $15 an hour, which represents a 60 percent increase from seven years ago. Many of the workers to see the biggest wage hikes are those those who work traditionally low-wage jobs, like those in the service industry. From the Post:

Before the pandemic, the average nonmanagerial restaurant worker earned $13.86 an hour. By June, the most recent month for which Labor Department data is available, that had skyrocketed to $15.31, a more than 10 percent increase. Supermarket workers just crossed the $15 threshold in Jun —their pay is up 7 percent since the pandemic began, to $15.04 an hour.

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It’s crucial to note, as the Post does, that the average wage going up is not the same as raising the federal minimum wage—which has remained stagnant at $7.25 since 2009. A huge portion of workers are still making less than $15 an hour, and they may not see their wages go up until the federal government takes action.

Still, it’s a testament to workers that the average wage has risen at all. Their refusal to accept the same wages and shitty work conditions is a radical act since it dares question why we work at all. Workers may have to return to work even as they contemplate such an enormous existential question, but at least they’ll be making slightly higher wages when they do.