College students call on lawmakers to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour

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CNBC’s “College Voices 2020” is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about coming of age, getting their college education and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Hannah Miao is a senior at Duke University studying public policy. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

As Congress considers raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, many college students say the wage hike would be a game changer for balancing work and school.

Sade Andrews, a 20-year-old fast food worker at McDonald’s, advocated for the successful ballot initiative in Florida last November that gradually raises the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. She hopes lawmakers will soon pass similar legislation at the federal level.

“We all need a fair chance, whether it’s fast food or you work at an airport, anywhere,” Andrews said. “So I really call on them to actually take action and not to delay it.”

Sade Andrews
Source: The Fight for $15 and a Union

Andrews, who has been taking time off from her studies at Hillsborough Community College to help with family finances, said Florida’s gradual wage hike will allow her to manage work and academics.

“When I go back to school, I’ll be able to get a car so I can go back and forth between work and school. I’ll be able to help my mom and my sister,” Andrews said.

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President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise of a $15 federal minimum wage and there is momentum to make it happen, especially with Democrats holding unified control of the White House and Congress. This week, the House Budget Committee included the gradual increase of minimum wage to $15 by 2025 as a provision in its latest $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

Still, there are hurdles to passing the wage hike in Congress. Democrats are planning to use a process known as budget reconciliation to fast-track passage of the Covid relief bill in the Senate — it requires only a simple majority instead of the usual 60 votes necessary to pass a bill. But, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Synema of Arizona have come out against a $15 federal minimum wage, which puts the vote in jeopardy, given the fact that Democrats have a razor thin majority in the Senate.

Some Republicans have supported raising the minimum wage but aren’t willing to commit to go as high as $15 an hour. Some progressive Democrats have considered putting the wage hike in a small business tax relief plan, not the broader Covid relief package.

Eight states, including Florida, have already approved a $15 per hour pay floor. Companies including Amazon and Target pay employees at least a $15 hourly wage.

But students say they’ll keep pressing lawmakers to make a $15 minimum wage the federal law.

“We’re going to do everything we possibly can to advocate for our representatives to get a Covid relief bill that has the $15 minimum wage in it,” said Christina Pugliese, a 21-year-old student at the University of Florida and the vice president of UF College Democrats. “Or at the very least, just get a $15 minimum wage bill passed, even if it’s not a part of the Covid relief package.”

Christina Pugliese
Source: Christina Pugliese

A recent report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that a $15 federal minimum wage would lift 900,000 people out of poverty, but cost 1.4 million jobs over the next four years.

But some small business owners have balked at the idea: One third of shop owners said they expect to lay off workers if Congress raises the federal pay floor to $15 per hour, according to the latest CNBC|SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey.

Sydney Harper, a 21-year-old junior at Vanderbilt University, supports a $15 minimum wage, but understands the hesitancy to pass the measure right now during a time of economic crisis.

“I do think there potentially could be some unintended consequences, especially for small businesses that have been squeezed pretty tight,” Harper said.

Sydney Harper
Source: Sydney Harper

Other recent studies have found a $15 minimum wage would result in little to no job loss while boosting payroll tax revenue.

“The bottom line is that the CBO finds that the benefit to low-wage workers of raising the minimum wage far outweighs the cost,” said Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist and director of policy at left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, on a Monday call with reporters.

Nina Schubert, a 21-year-old student who will transfer to The Ohio State University next fall, said it’s important for lawmakers to finally pass a new federal minimum wage since setting the current $7.25 pay floor more than a decade ago. 

“We won’t know unless we try,” Schubert said. “At this point we really do need to try because we have so many people struggling due to minimum wage being at such a low number.”

Nina Schubert
Source: Nina Schubert

Getting a job at Best Buy last fall that paid $15 per hour was a game changer for Schubert and allowed her to work less hours and spend more time on school and taking care of herself.

“Before I got the job I’m at now, I was making $8.75 an hour and that’s not something you can live off of,” Schubert said.

While Democrats in Congress work to pass a higher minimum wage, Harper, the Vanderbilt student, encouraged her peers to advocate for themselves at their jobs. Harper negotiated a pay raise from $12 to $15 an hour last year as a returning summer intern at a real estate company.

“Once you’re more confident in your contributions and your position in a workplace, it’s totally fine to ask for a pay increase,” Harper said. 

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