New petition campaign fights for living wage in Nebraska
This story is part of a larger package for the December issue of The Reader and El Perico on the state’s tight labor market.
Catherine Brauer, interviewed for of october Jobs in Omaha characteristic, was once a single mother with three young daughters. If Brauer worked full-time at the Nebraska minimum wage of $9 per hour, his annual income would be around $18,720. That’s $7,780 less than the federal poverty line $26,500 for a family of four. And even that’s better than states like Iowa and Kansas, which still use the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
But Brauer said The reader her children needed more than food in their stomachs and a roof over their heads – Brauer needed to find money for childcare, tutoring and after-school activities.
Community members like Brauer work multiple jobs, and it’s still not enough – about 10% of Nebraskans Living in poverty. That’s why Nebraska Appleseed, a Lincoln-based nonprofit that fights for social justice, started Increase Nebraska Salary: an electoral initiative campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage. Increase Nebraska Salary needs 130,000 petition signatures to win Nebraska’s Minimum Wage Increase Initiative, which would gradually raise the minimum wage from $9 to $15 an hour by 2026, in the November 2022 ballot. The reader discussed the campaign with Ken Smith, director of Nebraska Appleseed’s economic justice program.
The reader: What was the impetus for launching Raise the Wage Nebraska?
Ken Smith: While the prices of basic necessities like housing and food have risen, wages haven’t risen enough to allow people with full-time jobs – and even two or three jobs – to join both ends. It boils down to the fact that the minimum wage is, at its current level, well below a living wage.
Our initiative automatically ensures that the rate of wage increases reflects the increases in the cost of living that Nebraskanians will experience in the years to come. Nebraska’s Minimum Wage Increase Initiative is intended to not only gradually increase the minimum wage, but also…to respond to changes in consumer prices over time.
TR: How would a higher minimum wage support marginalized communities?
One in nine American workers earns wages that leave them in poverty, and workers of color and women are all overrepresented in low-wage jobs. Raising the minimum wage would at least help begin to narrow the racial and gender wage gap that has been an economic reality for a very long time. This is an effort to start reversing decades of wage inequality
TR: Tell me about the process of collecting signatures.
KS: The way the requirements are written, you need signatures from different parts of the state. It’s great because we’re in communities across Nebraska, talking about quality jobs and fair wage issues. We do this in a way that empowers the grassroots, and we welcome all the conversations that take place at farmers’ markets and on people’s porches.
TR: How do you sell the idea of a higher minimum wage to people who wouldn’t normally accept it?
KS: Locally and nationally, people are saying employers will have to pass on the costs and consumers will end up bearing the brunt of it. But whether you look at past examples of wage increases in Nebraska…or elsewhere in the United States, the prevailing trend seems to be that raising the minimum wage boosted the economy. All the gloomy economic prognoses have turned out to be exaggerated, if not completely wrong. Raising the minimum wage does not lead to job losses or higher consumer prices. This reduces pay equity gaps, increases consumer purchasing power, drives the economy forward, and helps workers afford the basics and make ends meet.
It’s also worth mentioning that we intentionally structured the change to happen over time, to allow companies to adapt to the new salary levels. It’s not like the pay goes from $9 to $15 overnight; in fact, some people thought it should happen faster than we ended up chasing it. But we wanted to follow best practices, working with partners who have designed these types of policies in other states, to make sure we have the best possible policy for Nebraska.
TR: What does the future look like for Raise the Wage Nebraska?
KS: We are confident that Nebraskans will stand up and say the current wage is not enough, and as a state we are prepared to ensure that our wage laws mean that someone who works will have needs fundamentals satisfied for him and his family. Ultimately, it comes down to a notion of fairness and a values-based position that the fact that people work multiple jobs and still cannot make ends meet is not something something Nebraskans will tolerate. We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t think we could pull it off.
Editor’s note: The Reader’s sister publication, El Perico, partners with Catherine Brauer to promote Latin creatives.
Leah Cates is a journalist and editorial and membership associate for The Reader. You can connect with Leah via Twitter (@cates_leah) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).