Louisiana is one of only five states with no minimum wage law. Not surprisingly, the other four also are Southern states — Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina. All five use the federal minimum wage law, which mandates a minimum of $7.25 an hour for most jobs (the exceptions include tipped employees, such as servers, who earn less by the hour). The federal minimum wage has not moved in more than five years, even as the cost of living has risen. In fact, adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage has fallen since the 1960s.
Some other states pay more — mostly the solidly blue states of the West Coast and Northeast, though even a couple of right-trending states (Alaska, Arizona) are a bit above the federal baseline. Washington state has the highest state minimum wage — $9.32 — but the city of Seattle is one of few municipalities to impose an even higher rate. By 2017, Seattle workers will earn $15 an hour without health care; those with health care will hit the $15 mark the following year.
Last month Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed his name to a letter addressed to Congress supporting passage of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which would set the federal minimum wage at $10.10 an hour. That's the same figure quoted by President Barack Obama in his 2014 State of the Union address, in which he advocated raising the minimum wage to $10.10. In his 2015 budget presentation to the New Orleans City Council this month, Landrieu introduced a minimum wage hike for city employees that would bring them to the $10.10 figure — which, if approved, will add $596,000 to the proposed $537 million budget.
So if it's good enough for New Orleans city employees, why not the rest of us? Unfortunately, no Louisiana city can make that change because Louisiana law forbids municipal governments from setting their own minimum wage. The New Orleans City Council passed a resolution in January urging Gov. Bobby Jindal and state legislators to raise the minimum wage statewide, but it was largely a symbolic act. Minimum wage hikes are discussed before every legislative session, but they never get very far. This year, then-State Rep. Jared Brossett's bill to make the state minimum wage $10.10 an hour was rejected in committee, as was another proposal to let local governments set alternative minimum wages.
Any change in the state or local minimum wage will have to come at the federal level.
Any change in the state or local minimum wage, therefore, will have to come at the federal level. In April, the U.S. Senate, led by Republicans, quashed a bill that would have phased in the first minimum wage hike since 2009. As they often do, Louisiana's senators fell on opposing sides of the issue; David Vitter voted no, while Mary Landrieu voted to continue debate. At election forums this fall, Landrieu has said she supports an increase in the minimum wage. One of her opponents, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, opposes raising the minimum wage. Rob Maness, who enjoys tea party support against Landrieu, said he thinks states "should be able to experiment with setting a minimum wage under their conditions." That's a recipe for even more poverty — and precisely why the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a national minimum wage.
A $10.10 minimum wage would mean a pay raise for more than 500,000 workers in Louisiana. The Louisiana Budget Project (LBP) estimates a higher minimum wage would pump $689 million into the state's sluggish economy by giving workers more spending power. Critics of a higher minimum wage say it would discourage employers and lower employment, while the LBP cites the example of Oregon, which lured eager Idaho workers with a minimum wage of nearly $2 per hour more. Both sides can point to statistics, but it's worth noting that states with no minimum wage laws, like Louisiana, are some of the poorest in the nation — and the most dependent on federal aid.
Unlike the Affordable Care Act, this isn't a partisan issue. A survey last year by LSU's Public Policy Research Lab found 86 percent of Louisiana Democrats and 62 percent of state Republicans supported a minimum wage hike. In a 1938 speech defending the original minimum wage — which also was controversial — President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned, "Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day ... tell you ... that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry."
The same holds true for a wage of less than $11 an hour. It's time to hike the minimum wage.