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July 25, 2020, 7:35 a.m. EDT

Joe Biden wants a $15 minimum wage — will the coronavirus pandemic make that more likely?

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By Elisabeth Buchwald

A $15-an-hour federal minimum wage has long been on many Democratic lawmakers’ wish lists. They could have the chance to cross that goal off their lists come November with former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of President Donald Trump in several recent polls .

Even before the pandemic, in Biden’s first official campaign speech, he promised to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour if elected president. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour since 2009, which comes out to roughly $15,000 a year for someone working 40 hours a week.

The conversation around increasing the minimum wage has shifted as the pandemic has highlighted the lack of labor protections, such as paid sick leave and hazard pay, for essential workers who risk their health and are typically paid low wages.

Also see: Just 3 in 10 people working outside the home get hazard pay, despite ‘pervasive fear’ of bringing coronavirus home

The term “essential worker” describes the group of workers that were called to work in person when the majority of the economy was shutdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. 

Essential workers typically work in fields such as transportation, food and health care administration, according to the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning policy think tank. In total 48 million Americans are essential workers, making up roughly 43% of the U.S. workforce, Brookings found . Some 4.3 million essential workers in the U.S. earn under $10 an hour. “All told, more than 57.1 percent of essential front-line workers earn less than $20 per hour,” Brookings found.

Essential workers are more likely to be people of color: 16% of essential workers are Black and 21% are Hispanic, compared to all other sectors of the workforce, where 10% of workers are Black and 15% are Hispanic.

Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7,  a union that represents more than 25,000 people based in Wyoming and Colorado who work at meatpacking sites and in grocery stores, said more than 400 members have contracted coronavirus.

“Their employers failed to adequately protect them — treating them as disposable while our nation labels them essential,” she said. “Of our nine deceased union members, eight were people of color and one was a white woman with Down Syndrome.”

“What this pandemic has done is reinforce that our economic system is broken and companies are fueling racial and economic inequity by failing to provide fair wages, or even basic workplace safety,” Cordova said. “Companies must recognize they cannot return to business as usual, and essential workers deserve at least $15 an hour since they put their lives at risk, and that of their families, every day.”

On Monday, thousands of workers across 160 cities participated in Strike for Black Lives, a protest to call attention to systemic racism and “unfair” working conditions that disproportionately impact Black Americans, according to the organizers of the protest.

Bettie Douglas, a McDonald’s /zigman2/quotes/203508018/composite MCD -0.0085% worker and a leader in the Fight for $15 and a Union, a campaign launched in 2012 by American fast food workers to push for a higher minimum wage, participated in a Strike for Black Lives demonstration in Saint Louis, Mo. on Monday.

“The pandemic has shown us just how important making a living wage of $15 an hour is to sustaining families,” Douglas, who makes $10 an hour working at McDonald’s, said. “We’re currently facing a public health emergency, an economic downturn, and a crisis of systemic racism that has led communities of color to suffer disproportionately from the impacts of COVID-19.”

“We deserve at least $15 an hour with pandemic pay and a voice on the job so that we can work with companies like McDonald’s to improve the working conditions for all workers — regardless of race, gender, or immigration status,” Douglas told MarketWatch in a statement.

A McDonald’s USA spokesperson told MarketWatch that “the average starting wage at U.S. corporate-owned restaurants is over $10 per hour and exceeds the federal minimum wage.”

“McDonald’s believes elected leaders have a responsibility to set, debate and change mandated minimum wages and does not lobby against or participate in any activities opposing raising the minimum wage.”

Last year, House Democrats passed the Raise the Wage Act , a bill that would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan branch of government, found that raising the wage to $15 an hour by 2025 “would boost the wages of 17 million workers who would otherwise earn less than $15 per hour.” 

The downside, however, is that 1.3 million workers could become unemployed as a result, according to the CBO’s median estimate .

Members of Biden’s campaign team did not respond to a request for a comment as to whether Biden has a plan to protect some of the jobs that could be eliminated as a result of a $15 minimum wage.

Ahead of the House’s vote to pass the Raise the Wage Act last July, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying group for businesses,  said it “strongly opposed” raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, citing the CBO’s report.

The Chamber did, however, say it supports raising the minimum wage to $10 because it “would result in few, if any, job losses.”

The CBO’s report, which was published in July 2019, naturally doesn’t capture the economic impact of the pandemic, which has put the U.S. and other countries into a recession.

As a result of the recession, more than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs, pushing the unemployment rate to over 11%.

That won’t necessarily make it more difficult to enact a $15 federal minimum wage, Tsedeye Gebreselassie, an attorney at the National Employment Law Project,  an advocacy organization focused on workers’ rights, said.

“Any time there’s talks of raising the federal minimum wage, opponents will say ‘now’s not the time,'” Gebreselassie said.

At the same time, the majority of Democratic and Republican voters are in favor of raising the minimum wage, according to a survey conducted by Pew Research last year.

“What will help businesses when it’s safe for them to reopen is not a low minimum wage,” Gebreselassie said. “It’s increased consumer demand that comes from raising wages and unemployment benefits that put cash in people’s hands.”

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