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Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


FAIR MINIMUM WAGE ACT OF 2007 -- (Senate - January 30, 2007)

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Mr. KENNEDY. I thank the Chair.

Mr. President, just to put this whole issue in some perspective, I thought I would just take a minute or two to refresh both this body and those who are interested in this issue about increasing the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, about what has happened to workers and what has happened, basically, to the middle class over the period of the last years.

Looking at this chart here, from 1947 to 1973, this is when the country was moving along together. This shows the different incomes. It divides the incomes of Americans into five different--effectively buckets: the lowest 20 percent, the second 20 percent, the middle 20 percent, the fourth 20 percent, and the top.

If you look at this for a period of 26 years, you will see that all America grew together. The economy worked for all Americans. As a matter of fact, it worked a little bit better for those with the lowest income, but the economy worked for all America. During that period of time, we had Republicans and Democrats alike who voted for the increase in the minimum wage as we increased in productivity. America went along together.

What has happened in the last several years, from 2001 to 2004? Here we have the lowest 20 percent. This represents the low-income groups, the minimum wage workers, then the second, third, middle, fourth, and the highest 20 percent is the gray area, and the top 1 percent is demonstrated by the red area. See what has happened to the country, how we have grown further and further apart--the explosion in wealth for the very top and the collapse of the American promise at the very lowest; the cutting out of millions of Americans from the hopes and the dreams and the idea of a fair and just America.

Those are the statistics. Those are the facts. We had a minimum wage which reflected that progress for 26 years when America grew together. We have now had 10 years of no growth in the minimum wage, and we see America growing further apart. We have a chance to do something about it this noontime. I am hopeful that we will.

As I mentioned earlier, I don't know why it is our friends on the other side have really such a contemptuous attitude about low-income working people. They eliminated the overtime program for 6 million Americans last year--6 million Americans who otherwise would have gotten an increase in the minimum wage. They eliminated that. When we had the crisis down in New Orleans, one of the first things the administration did was eliminate what they call the Davis-Bacon program, which is to provide wages that will be pegged to what the average wage is in that particular region, where construction workers average $29,000 a year. What in the world is wrong with someone making $29,000 a year so that you want to reduce their pay while they are working for the recovery from Katrina? But oh, no, they eliminated that kind of protection. Just as they cut back on the unemployment compensation for workers who were coming out of Katrina, and after the National Academy of Sciences said that with what is happening in the poultry business and the meat-cutting business, with computers, we need to do something primarily about women in the workplace on the issues of ergonomics--no way. No way we are going to look out after workers.

It is difficult for me to understand. What is it about it? What really gets our Republican friends that they just can't stand hard-working people? We will hear a lot of comments and lectures about, let's make work pay, that work paying is a real value. I hope we don't hear that lecture anymore around here from that side. I hope we are not going to hear anymore talk of values about it. The leaders of the great religions are in strong support. I have put those comments into the RECORD. They are in strong support of this. They believe it is a moral issue, to follow the admonition of Saint Matthew: What you do to the least of these, you do unto me. Talk about poverty. Talk about the poor.

This is just about a wage, the minimum wage. But it is about a just wage. What is it about that?

I see my friend from Ohio on the Senate floor. I know he has been interested in and has spoken about the issues of minimum wage and also about what has been happening in the middle class. I am glad to entertain any questions he might have or yield for any comment that he might wish to make.

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Mr. KENNEDY. The Senator understands. I have listened to him speak very eloquently in his maiden speech about what has happened in the middle class of America. The Senator understands that when we saw productivity increase in the 1960s and 1970s, all during this period when there was economic growth, we all went up together. The rising tide raised all the boats across the country. Then look at what happened. Productivity went up, and the real minimum wage went down.

Does the Senator not share the belief with me that if workers are going to work hard and produce--we have the labor force that is the hardest working labor force in the industrial world. It works longer, harder, and has had the greatest increase in productivity. Does the Senator not agree with me that at least some of that increase in productivity should have been passed on to working families?

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, can I ask the Senator another question. This good Senator was in the House of Representatives last year when the administration limited overtime pay for six million workers, and tens of thousands in my State of Massachusetts--tens of thousands. Close to 60,000 or 70,000 workers lost overtime pay. Overtime pay--if you are going to work more than 40 hours a week, you should be paid overtime. The administration eliminated that overtime pay for workers. They cut back on the protections of Davis-Bacon in the gulf and the recovery of the gulf. The workers down there who were unemployed, they ended the unemployment compensation for those workers who were otherwise eligible for it. This is unemployment compensation.

We want to remind everyone that the workers contribute to the unemployment compensation fund. They contribute as workers. If you don't contribute, you don't get unemployment compensation. So these are workers who have contributed to the fund. The fund was in surplus at that time. These are workers who have worked hard and couldn't find the jobs down there, and the administration cut back on those protections, cut back on the ergonomic protections. Even before the Sago mines, we find out they cut back in the mine safety and on safety officials. What is it? What is it, if the Senator from Ohio can help me.

I know about the great loss of jobs because of the support for tax incentives that sent jobs overseas and the failure to try and turn off that spigot. That means something for the middle-class workers. So if you add all of those together--we will find a chance now at 12 o'clock--if you add all of these together, we find the hostility--I call it hostility, not indifference--but hostility to workers, and I have difficulty understanding that.

Maybe the Senator could help me understand what has happened in his State that has been so adversely impacted, closing some of those provisions that affected impacted workers in the trade program.

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, if the Senator would yield for one more question, I appreciate him mentioning the earned income tax credit, because that can make a difference for families of three or more. They benefit with the earned income tax credit more than the minimum wage. If it is only an individual worker, an individual with a single child, they will benefit more with the increase. But the Senator is right, we ought to be trying to look at these issues in some harmony. But we don't hear any voices on that side to say: OK, Senator, if you want an increase in the minimum wage, we will give an increase in the earned income tax benefit. We will sit down and work something out. We don't hear any of that.

I want to draw to the attention of the Senator the fact that it has been 10 years since we have had an increase in the minimum wage, and over that period of time we have provided $276 billion in tax breaks for corporations, $36 billion in tax breaks for small businesses. We hear around here on the floor: Well, we haven't given the businesses enough and we have to put some more tax breaks on here in order to get an increase in the minimum wage.

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, if the Senator will yield, we are here on day seven now of this discussion. We had 16 days where we talked about the minimum wage another time. And this past week, since we started this debate, every Member of Congress has made $3,840 in the last week. Mr. President, $3,840 is what a minimum wage worker would make in 4 months--4 months. Three thousand eight hundred dollars, every Member of this Senate.

Does the Senator find it somewhat troublesome that we are getting paid $3,800 in this past week and we are standing here against an increase in the minimum wage, from $5.15 to $7.25, over a 2-year period? Does the Senator not share with me this extraordinary inequality that is so evident here in this body? Does he find it, as do I, highly depressing in terms of the actions of this body--not in terms of our will to continue fighting, but I was thinking of appropriate words and I kept rejecting the ones I was thinking about.

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Mr. KENNEDY. In the last few minutes, let me discuss what this issue is about. This issue is about John Hosier from Oklahoma who works at the Salvation Army for $6 an hour. He provides the family's sole paycheck. John and his wife Tina and their two children live on barely $200 a week. The family receives Government aid in the form of Medicare and food stamps but is still living on the verge of poverty. He said:

It's hard on a small income ..... if it wasn't for the Salvation Army, I don't know where I'd be.

This is a vote on John Hosier.

This is a vote for Elizabeth Lipp of Missouri, a 21-year-old single mom. Elizabeth works two jobs, which, prior to a Missouri ballot initiative, paid $5.15. On weekdays Elizabeth worked as a housekeeper, and on the weekends she worked as a nurse's aide at a convalescent and retirement home. She lives with her mother and says:

Getting by on $5.15 was a struggle. I pay out $75 a week alone for child care.

Extra money would help her mother with the bills, help pay off the car, and help her put aside some savings.

This is about Peggy Fraley from Wichita, KS, a 60-year-old grandmother. Her daughter, Karla, has five children, ages 6 to 17. Peggy works as a receptionist. Karla is a food service worker. Both women are working $5.15-an-hour jobs. The family is struggling to get by. Peggy explains:

We can barely make it ..... but we've got each other. That's richer sometimes.

There it is. Those are the people we are fighting for and standing with. Those are the people we believe ought to get an increase from $5.15 to $7.25.

You can call that a paycheck. It is just a paycheck. What Democrats are fighting for is a just paycheck.

Finally, we have to understand at the end of this debate, these are our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters, citizens in the United States of America. These are men and women of dignity, who take pride in the job they do. It is a difficult job, but they still do it. They care about their children, they have hopeful dreams for their children.

We are a Nation of many faiths, but all of the faiths talk about, and the Bible teaches the evilness of exploitation of the poor to profit the rich. All faiths say that is wrong. They all say that is wrong.

St. Matthew's Gospel says: Whatever you have done unto the least of my brethren, you have done unto me.

It is time we reach out to these men and women of dignity, these men and women--primarily women--who have children. This is a women's issue, it is a children's issue, it is a fairness issue. It is an issue of basic moral fairness. It is a civil rights issue because so many of those men and women are men and women of color. And, most of all, it is a fairness issue. In the United States of America, the richest country in the world, we are saying to those people who work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks of the year: You shouldn't have to live in poverty. The other side says no. The other side says no.

We stand for those individuals. It is the right thing to do. It is a defining issue of fairness and decency, and it is an indication of what we as Americans feel about our fellow citizens. I hope we will get a strong vote in favor.

Just remember, if there is any question in your mind, in the last week, the last 7 days, Senators have made $3,800. Every Member of this Senate has earned that, and Members are going to vote no? Members are going to vote no to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 over 2 years? And we have just earned $3,800 in 1 week?

Opposing the increase in the minimum wage is wrong. It is wrong. Six months after an election and 2 years before an election, it is wrong. It is wrong every single day of the year.

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I thank the Senate. That was an extraordinarily strong vote. It certainly indicates that important progress is going to be made on this issue. I hope the sooner the better. We do have eight pending amendments that are germane. We are hopeful we can consider the DeMint amendment or a vote in relation to that. I understand there is a budget point of order on that that might be made. We look forward to trying to dispose of other amendments through the course of the afternoon.

For the benefit of the Members, we have 30 hours now on this particular proposal. We will have, unless the leaders are able to work something out tomorrow, another cloture vote on the underlying legislation.

We are prepared to move ahead on these amendments. I will talk to my friend and colleague, Senator Enzi, about them. Of the eight pending amendments, I believe six are under the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee. We will work that out with the members of the Finance Committee and inform the Senate as soon as possible thereon.

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Mr. KENNEDY. To answer the Senator, this is the seventh day we have been on the minimum wage legislation. During this debate we have had 16 days where the Senate has addressed an increase in the minimum wage where we were unable to get a successful outcome. This is a subject that Members can understand quite readily. In one week since we started this, we have all received over $3,800 in pay ourselves, but we haven't increased the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 over a 2-year period. I share the Senator's frustration about progress, the time it has taken us to get to this point. I hope our leaders can find a pathway that can expedite the process. Of the remaining issues, one is a DeMint amendment, which we have already addressed, that is adding the minimum wage on to all of the States rather than following the minimum wage standard. The other is a Chambliss amendment that ought to be on an immigration bill that deals with the AgJOBS payment. That is suitable for that rather than being on the minimum wage bill. But we are going to deal with these issues and do it in an expeditious way and continue to move forward.

Minimum wage workers ought to understand, though, that this was an important vote we have taken. I don't wish to be overly hopeful or optimistic, but I think help is on its way.

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