"We do a lot of work": Texas' low-wage workers hope for more as Biden, Congress push minimum wage hike

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Monique Warren works as a baggage handler at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Warren earns $9 per hour, and is a supporter of President Joe Biden's proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Credit: May-Ying Lam for The Texas Tribune

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HOUSTON — In the basement of George Bush Intercontinental Airport, baggage handler Monique Warren works in a small room where she ensures luggage federal agents have cleared for travel makes it on to departing planes.

Hired at $9 an hour in 2018, Warren often works long hours. She’d hoped for a raise last year. Instead, she was furloughed in April and not called back to work until October.

Similar to health care professionals, grocery store employees and transportation workers who have been called essential during the pandemic, Warren said her responsibilities at work have expanded as she tries to keep herself and others at the airport safe from COVID-19.

What hasn’t changed is her pay. Warren still makes $9 an hour.

That’s well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. But it’s also far below the $11.74 a single adult Texan with no children needs to earn to maintain a normal standard of living in the state, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator.

“I feel like we deserve more because I feel like we do a lot of work,” Warren said in an interview.

“It would help with a lot of things. I won't struggle — right now I live with my cousin. It would help me get back on my feet for saving more money, saving for a car. Then I won’t have to take the bus to work.”

Democratic Texas lawmakers for years have tried to raise the state’s minimum wage above the federal threshold. Their attempts have gained virtually no traction at the Legislature.

"Why? It’s controlled by Republicans,” state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa said. “Any type of attempt to file legislation in the Texas Legislature to increase minimum wage is dead on arrival. The leadership would oppose it."

But what some Democrats have failed to achieve at the state level is now being championed in Washington, D.C. as a proposal from President Joe Biden to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is gaining traction in Congress.

The minimum wage in the United States has remained at $7.25 an hour since 2009. It’s an amount workers, economists and the majority of states agree is not a livable wage.

The latest bill introduced by U.S. House and Senate Democrats this week would increase the minimum wage gradually year over year until it would be set at $15 an hour in 2025. It’s a similar scaling increase that has been underway, or is about to begin, in states like Arizona, Arkansas and Florida, where voters in recent years have approved raising the minimum wage.

About 4.5 million Texans’ wages could benefit from a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, according to 2019 data from the nonprofit think tank Economic Policy Institute. And while there is mostly consensus that $7.25 an hour is not a livable wage, economists and independent analysts don’t universally agree on whether raising it would be a net positive for the Texas economy.

Economists and business groups say some small businesses would likely be forced to layoff some employees.

“The impact would be felt, and possibly negatively, in some of our smaller or more rural areas,” said Aaron Cox, senior vice president and chief operating officer for the Texas Association of Business, the state’s chamber of commerce.

And Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who works with lawmakers to set priorities for the GOP-controlled Legislature, opposes such a move.

“Small businesses are the backbone of the Texas economy, and a government-imposed $15 minimum wage would put a boot on the neck of small businesses struggling under the weight of the pandemic,” said Renae Eze, an Abbott spokesperson.

Benefits and risks

Janicia Marbray has worked at fast food joints, grocery stores and other places that have paid $7 or $8 an hour for much of her working life, she said. For the last year, the single mother of two has worked a job serving food to students in the cafeteria at Texas Southern University in Houston.

During the pandemic, Marbray, 32, and her coworkers have had to take extra steps to ensure safety and cleanliness in the cafeteria.

“It’s more protocol, more steps to take food-wise, cooking-wise,” Marbray said in an interview. “A lot of other jobs give hazard pay for working during COVID. But some jobs do, some jobs don't. I do feel like we’re putting ourselves at risk.”

But Marbray still makes $10.05 an hour, the same amount she made when she was hired a year ago. She said she does not receive extra hazard pay for working in person during the coronavirus.

“The pandemic has highlighted the need for raising the minimum wage because most of the front-line workers are low-wage employees,” said state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, who has filed legislation in previous legislative sessions looking to raise the minimum wage.

This year, he’s already filed House Concurrent Resolution 21 that urges Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. But there’s not a lot of hope the measure will pass.

“This is Texas, man,” said Daniel Hamermesh, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Texas at Austin. “This state is run by companies and employers and they realize quite rightly that to some extent, it would be paid a bit out of their profits.”

But economists and independent analysts are certain that hiking the minimum wage would have an impact on low-wage workers, especially those who have been considered essential during the pandemic.

Quianta Moore, who analyzes vulnerable communities for Rice University, said many people who would stand to benefit from a minimum wage increase do not often talk about it in those terms.

“I don’t know that they say: ‘We need to raise the minimum wage,’” Moore said of the communities she studies. “Instead what they say is: ‘We need a decent living wage. We need a wage that can support our families. We need a wage that I don’t need to work three jobs to maintain paying expenses.’”

Jennifer Owens, who earns $14.65 an hour stocking grocery store shelves on the overnight shift, falls into that category. Owens also works part-time for the delivery app DoorDash and answers emails for an e-commerce company in order to support herself and two boys, ages 12 and 13.

“I’ve had 3 jobs for a couple years now because of the pay,” Owens said in an interview. “But I have no other choice.”

A "free-market society"

With legislation potentially gaining momentum in Congress, Cox, with the Texas Association of Business, is asking what he said are key questions: Would a minimum wage increase actually jumpstart the flailing Texas economy?

Joyce Beebe, an economist with Rice University, isn’t so sure.

“The $15 federal minimum wage would hurt small business owners the most,” Beebe said.

Primarily, though, economists emphasized that low wage workers in Texas could benefit the most, even though some of those workers would likely be laid off if employers decide not to pay all of their employees a higher minimum wage.

And after a year of serious economic disruption, Democratic state lawmakers have continued filing bills at the Texas Capitol, pushing to raise the minimum wage and improve worker protections. Some don’t think the issue should be partisan.

“Traditional red states like Missouri, Arkansas, Florida have raised their minimum wage due to overwhelming public support,” said state Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, who has filed House Bill 731, which calls for raising the minimum wage. “It’s something Texans support, too.”

While Texas prohibits local jurisdictions from raising the minimum wage for private employees, three major Texas counties — Bexar, Dallas and Travis — have in recent years raised the minimum wage for their county government employees to $15 an hour.

The momentum has not extended to most of the state’s other 254 counties, and Cox said Texas typically takes a hands-off approach to increase wages.

“I think we can universally agree that $7.25 is not a livable wage, but we also live in a free-market society,” Cox said. “The free market is espoused here in Texas maybe more than anywhere else in the world. The market will decide. Let the business owners decide.”

Battles ahead in Austin and Washington, D.C.

The U.S House two years ago agreed to raise the minimum wage, though the measure never got through the Senate. All Texas members of the lower chamber voted along party lines at the time, with Democrats supporting it and Republicans opposing it.

The measure is again expected to face fierce opposition in the Senate this year. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, expressed his opposition on Twitter on Thursday.

“More than doubling the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 will not ‘create jobs’ or speed the recovery,” he said.

But back home, Democratic state lawmakers believe the free market will not always protect workers, as the pandemic has put on display.

“It doesn’t seem fair because when other professions or businesses have to shut down, but these folks working on the front lines still have to raise a family, pay their bills and they can’t afford to not go to work,” said González, the lawmaker from Dallas. “It’s not fair, it’s not right. Nobody should ever be put in that position to risk their livelihood, their family’s livelihood versus their health and safety.”

If nothing else, Marbray, the university cafeteria server, hopes the pandemic highlighted the issues that have persisted for years for low-wage workers.

“It’s scary, scary times,” she said. “It’s hard to not go to work and miss a check and miss pay because of all that's going on.”

Disclosure: Rice University, Texas Association of Business, Texas Southern University - Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, Economist and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.