Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today delivered a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on the need to pass the American Rescue Plan Act and offered an amendment to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. His remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below:
Mr. President, I rise today to offer an amendment to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour over a 5-year period and I will be speaking on that amendment in a moment.
But before I do that, let me begin my remarks by talking about why this reconciliation bill that we are debating today is so important and why we need to pass it as soon as possible.
Let’s be clear. Today, in America, we are living through one of the worst economic crises in the modern history of America and the worst public health crisis in more than a hundred years.
The COVID-19 pandemic is still raging across the country. Meanwhile, over 90 million Americans today are either uninsured or under-insured and can’t afford to go to a doctor when they get sick. The isolation and anxiety caused by the pandemic has resulted in a huge increase in mental illness.
During the pandemic, 63% of American workers have been living paycheck to paycheck, including millions of essential workers who put their lives on the line each and every day for totally inadequate wages.
More than 23 million Americans are unemployed, under employed or have given up looking for work, while hunger in this country continues to soar.
Because of lack of income, millions of Americans owe thousands of dollars in back rent and many of them face the threat of eviction. This is on top of the 500,000 who are already homeless.
Meanwhile, the wealthiest people in this country are becoming much richer, and income and wealth inequality is skyrocketing. Incredibly, during the pandemic, over 650 billionaires in America have increased their wealth by more than $1 trillion.
As a result of the pandemic education in this country from childcare to graduate school, is in chaos. The majority of young people in this country have seen their education disrupted and it is likely that hundreds of colleges will soon cease to exist.
In this moment of unprecedented crises, the Senate must respond through unprecedented action.
Mr. President, for too long Congress has responded to the needs of the wealthy and the powerful. Now it is time to respond to the needs of working families – black and white, Latino, Native American and Asian American.
That is what this reconciliation bill is all about.
This Budget Reconciliation bill that we are debating today will enable us to aggressively crush the pandemic which has already taken over 500,000 lives – and enable the American people to return to their jobs and schools.
It will establish a national emergency program to produce the quantity of vaccines that we need and get them into the arms of our people as quickly as possible.
It will allow us to keep the promises we made to the American people and increase the $600 in direct payments for working-class adults and their children to $2,000.
What that means is that a typical family of four would get a direct payment of $5,600.
The Budget Reconciliation bill that we are considering today will provide $400 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits to over 10 million Americans until the end of August.
Further, Mr. President, all of us know that we have a childcare crisis in America. This Budget Reconciliation bill will provide the resources necessary to provide childcare to 875,000 kids in America.
It will expand the Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,000 and to $3,600 for kids under the age of 6.
And by taking these steps we will be cutting the child poverty in half. Let me repeat that. If we pass this bill, we will cut child poverty in the United States of America by 50 percent.
Further, this bill will provide $350 billion to prevent mass layoffs of public sector workers in state and local governments.
At a time when over 90 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured, this bill will enable the Senate to substantially increase access to health care for millions of Americans, including a significant expansion of Medicaid.
It will allow more Americans to receive the primary care that they need through a $7.6 billion increase in funding for community health centers. It will address the serious shortage of doctors and nurses in rural areas and inner cities by expanding the National Health Service Corps. And it will make sure our veterans receive the healthcare they have earned and deserve by increasing funding at the VA by $17 billion.
In addition, Mr. President, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, we can no longer tolerate hunger in America and the long bread lines that have stretched mile after mile during the pandemic.
This bill will provide nutrition assistance to tens of millions of hungry families with children, the disabled and the elderly.
Further, Mr. President, this bill will provide rent relief, utility assistance and mortgage assistance to millions of tenants and homeowners who are in danger of eviction and foreclosure.
It will begin to address the crisis of homelessness in America.
Further, Mr. President, all of us must acknowledge that there is a pension crisis in America today. As a result of the greed on Wall Street, workers and retirees in multi-employer pension plans are in danger of seeing their retirement benefits cut by as much as 65 percent. That is unacceptable.
When a worker is promised a pension after a lifetime of work that promise must be kept. This bill will provide the resources necessary to prevent the pensions of millions of Americans from being cut.
Mr. President, not only is this $1.9 trillion emergency COVID-relief package the right thing to do from a moral perspective and a public policy perspective, it is exactly what over 70 percent of the American people want us to do.
But, Mr. President, because of an unfortunate and misguided decision by the parliamentarian, this reconciliation bill does not include an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
In my view, an unelected staffer in the Senate should not be in charge of determining whether 32 million workers in America receive a raise.
It is hard for me to understand how drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was considered to be consistent with the Byrd Rule, while increasing the minimum wage is not.
Therefore, Mr. President, I am offering an amendment today with Majority Leader Schumer, Senator Patty Murray, Senator Ron Wyden and many others in this Chamber to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025.
This amendment is similar to legislation which has been co-sponsored by 38 members of the Senate and legislation which has already passed the House.
This amendment is supported by some 300 national organizations including the AFL-CIO and virtually all of the major unions in our country.
And because raising the minimum wage to a living wage will significantly benefit women and people of color it is supported by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Organization for Women, UNIDOS, the American Association of University Women, Indivisible, Justice for Migrant Women, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the National Women’s Law Center.
And while raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour will mean a wage increase for over 30 million Americans, given the fact that nearly 50% of Black and Latino workers earn less than $15 an hour, it will be a huge help to those communities.
Let’s be clear. This is the richest country in the history of the world. We can no longer tolerate millions of our workers being unable to feed their families because they are working for starvation wages.
Mr. President, nobody in America can survive on $7.25 an hour, $9 an hour or $12 an hour. We need an economy in which all of our workers earn at least a living wage.
It is a national disgrace that Congress has not passed an increase in the minimum wage since 2007 – 14 years ago.
It is totally unacceptable that the minimum wage has lost over 30 percent of its purchasing power since 1968.
Yes. Now is the time to raise the minimum wage to a living wage – at least $15 an hour. A job in the United States of America should lift you out of poverty, not keep you in it.
And when we increase that minimum wage to $15 an hour we will be giving over 32 million Americans a much needed raise.
In fact, if this amendment becomes law, the average low-wage worker in America would receive $3,300 in additional income – each and every year.
And let’s be clear. More than 60 percent of the American people support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. This is not a radical idea. This is what the American people want.
Since 1998, every time a state has had an initiative on the ballot to raise the minimum wage it has won – no matter if that state was red, blue or purple.
In November 61% of the people in Florida – a state Joe Biden lost by 3 points – voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
8 states and over 40 cities have adopted laws to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Just a few days ago, the House did the right thing and passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Now, this issue rests in the Senate.
We must understand that the issue of starvation wages is a national emergency. We must raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
In the last few days, I have heard some concerns from my colleagues about one part of our amendment and that is the provision to raise the tipped wage which now stands unbelievably at $2.13 an hour. Yes, the federal minimum wage for waiters and waitresses, barbers, hair stylists, parking attendants and others is at $2.13 and has not been raised since 1991 – 30 years ago.
The proposal in this legislation would raise that tipped wage from $2.13 an hour to $14.95 over a seven year period – something which is desperately needed.
The National Restaurant Association, a very powerful lobbying organization has suggested to Members of Congress that this legislation is opposed by restaurant workers and would be harmful to their interests. This is not true. One Fair Wage, an organization representing service employees has just delivered to the White House a petition with 140,000 signatures from service workers who are demanding that they receive the same minimum wage as every other worker.
Polling among service employees and non-service employees also supports the reality that Americans want our waiters, waitresses and other service employees to get a fair minimum wage.
Now I have heard from some that people who are working in the service industry are doing really well and they don’t need an increase in the minimum wage. The tips that they are receiving are covering all of their needs. Really?
Today, 70% of tipped workers are women who suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of the US workforce, use food stamps at double the rate, and suffer from the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry because they must tolerate inappropriate customer behavior to feed their families in tips.
Further, let us be very clear, the idea of moving tipped wages to the same level as the overall minimum wage is not a radical idea.
It already exists in seven states including California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Montana, Alaska, and Minnesota.
And I should point out that all of these states experienced a growth in the number of small businesses and restaurants after they abolished the tipped minimum wage. And guess what? Waiters and waitresses in these states received more in tips, not less.
Let’s talk about how the pandemic has affected tipped workers. In many states where the tipped minimum wage still exists, tipped workers did not even qualify for unemployment because their wages were too low.
And let’s be clear. In an industry where more than 6 million people have lost their jobs, over 60% of sub-minimum wage earners could not get unemployment benefits because the state and federal government denied them benefits for not making enough earned income. At the same time, as restaurants re-open the CDC has declared restaurants as the most dangerous place to work, and now servers are responsible for enforcing new rules and protocols around social distancing and wearing masks.
The restaurant industry has some of the highest rates of sexual harassment. In a workplace where 70% of the workers are women, and where they rely on their customers to determine their wages, women are often expected to withstand sexual harassment in order to get paid.
In states where the sub minimum wage has been eliminated sexual harassment has been cut in half. And that is exactly what we should be doing on the federal level.
Mr. President, in my view, it all comes down to this. Which side are you on? Are you on the side of the working people in America who desperately need a raise? Or are you on the side of the wealthy and the powerful who want to continue exploiting their workers and paying starvation wages? It ain’t more complicated than that.
I urge my colleagues to stand with the working class of America. I urge my colleagues to support this amendment.
This blog originally appeared at Working Life on March 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years.