A raise that doesn't help

THURSDAY'S national minimum-wage bump to $6.55 an hour won't affect Pennsylvania workers who are already earning the state rate of $7.15 an hour. But the extra 60 cents does little for them or the 1.6 million Pennsylvanians struggling to cover the skyrocketing cost of milk, bread and gas with low wages.

Today, a third of all Americans are trying to make ends meet on low wages. And the number of low-wage jobs - primarily service jobs in hotels, food prep, home health care and office cleaning - is growing. Over the next decade, 5 million new jobs will pay poverty-level wages unless something is done.

Debra Fowlkes, a life-long Philadelphia resident, lives this struggle daily. She's doing her best to make ends meet, but earning just $9 an hour as a security officer at a state welfare agency doesn't support her three children. She can't remember the last time her bills were paid-up, and despite her hard work, she's lost hope of ever catching up.

Debra's not alone - one in four Philadelphians lives in poverty. Despite working hard to create better futures for their families, they are making little headway in an economy that's producing low-wage jobs like there's no tomorrow.

At the same time, this past year marked the fifth straight one in which the number of millionaires in our country grew - now at 10 million. The top 1 percent of households take home 22 percent of all income - more than double the 9 percent of 30 years ago. This is the highest concentration of income in the hands of the wealthiest one percent since 1928, a year before the great stock market crash.

At no time in our history has the disparity in income been so wide and in no other industrialized country does it come close.

CEO compensation is more than 400 times the take-home pay of an average U.S. worker. For an industrialized country, there is no parallel to this growing income divide between the highest- and lowest-paid workers. Corporate executives in England make half as much as those in the U.S. while the lowest-paid workers there earn a higher wage than their U.S. counterparts.

As we look toward the upcoming election, which will put the fate of our country in new hands, we must demand national policies to change the direction of our economy. Pegging the minimum wage to a percentage of median income would raise it and then keep the lowest-paid workers on pace with future increases of the rest of the workforce. Expanding the earned income tax credit - a cost that would be offset by closing tax loopholes for the very wealthy - would also help those low-income families teetering on the brink of poverty.

At the state level, establishing prevailing wages and benefits for workers at state-owned buildings and facilities, as well as publicly-funded projects, would be a critical step forward in making sure work paid enough to get by. In fact, Pennsylvania is behind the curve in establishing these standards which already exist in many neighboring states.

ASIDE FROM government action, companies, particularly those benefiting from tax breaks, must raise pay in low-wage industries if we are to make an immediate and widescale impact on poverty. Government programs alone will fall short, and unions have shown they can work with business responsibly to bring low-wage workers out of poverty.

In Pennsylvania, low-wage union workers make nearly 13 percent more in wages than their non-union counterparts and are 25 percent more likely to get employer-paid health care and a pension. But joining a union can be hard for many workers who fear employer retribution. Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which creates a more neutral environment for workers to decide on union membership, would help low-wage workers join the union and get the raises they need.

We've long held to the notion that having a job means you can make ends meet. But unless steps are taken to address the growing imbalance in our economy, we could wake up one day in a city of just the very rich and the working poor. *

Mike Fishman is president of Local 32BJ of SEIU, which includes 5,000 members in the Philadelphia area. Local 32BJ SEIU is the largest private sector union on the East Coast.