President Obama Just Did What Congress Wouldn't Do on the Minimum Wage

President Obama Just Did What Congress Wouldn't Do on the Minimum Wage

The news: During his State of the Union address this year, President Barack Obama promised a "year of action," with or without congressional backing, and so far, he has been delivering. After unilaterally easing student loans and capping carbon emissions, Obama has now turned his attention to the next controversial agenda item: the minimum wage.

Frustrated by Congress' inability even to debate raising the national pay floor, Obama signed a new executive order to guarantee federal workers a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour. And now the Labor Department is following through; on Thursday, authorities announced that federal workers who previously didn't meet the $10.10 cutoff (around 200,000 in total) will receive a salary raise.

While the measure won't go into effect until next January, it's Obama's single biggest action to increase minimum wage — and a big slap to Congress' face. "The federal government should practice what it preaches on the minimum wage," said Labor Secretary Tom Perez. "No person who works a full-time job should have to live in poverty."

Why is Obama doing this? Last April, congressional Republicans denied the opportunity to vote on a new bill to increase nationwide minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. While Obama signed the executive order back in February, he vowed to bypass lawmakers and push his vision through — and he now has.

Obama's move also fits in with the recent trend of states and cities taking minimum wage into their own hands. Last month, Hawaii joined Connecticut and Maryland to become the third state this year to raise its minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, the amount prescribed by congressional Democrats. Already 34 other states have introduced similar legislation for higher pay.

Seattle has also raised its pay floor to $15 an hour, effectively creating the highest minimum wage not only in the U.S., but in the world.


Image Credit: Quartz

But there is still a long way to go. As the Labor Department points out in the map below, a huge chunk of the country still pays below the national pay floor, and some don't even have any minimum wage laws at all. (The most recent state actions to increase minimum wage are not reflected on the map.)


Image Credit: Department of Labor

At a time when high-profile minimum wage protests are taking place all over the world, Obama's decision to raise pay for federal workers might seem like a drop in the bucket: After all, 200,000 federal workers are very few compared to the 4.6 million Americans who make less than $10.10 an hour and would directly benefit from a nationwide minimum wage increase. Still, it's more than what Congress has been able to achieve, and small victories count in this fight.

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Eileen Shim

Eileen is a writer living in New York. She studied comparative literature and international studies at Yale University, and enjoys writing about the intersection of culture and politics.

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