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As Thanksgiving Nears, Milwaukee Advocates Call For Higher Minimum Wage

Erin Toner

Advocates for the working poor in Milwaukee are using the Thanksgiving holiday to call for higher wages for low-skilled workers.

It’s part of an ongoing national push in recent months to increase pay for fast food workers and encourage employees to form unions.

Wisconsin’s minimum wage is $7.25. It's among 22 states that match the federal minimum wage; 19 states have one higher than the federal level.

Several state lawmakers aimed to link Wisconsin's minimum wage with hunger at the holidays. They passed out frozen turkeys and Thanksgiving side dishes on Monday to about a dozen mainly elderly men and women at Milwaukee's Hunger Task Force.

But Democratic Sen. Nikiya Harris says hunger is a year-round problem for many low-income people.

“Families are struggling, they’re hurting and all they want is just to take care of their basic living expenses and they can’t do that on $7.25 an hour. It’s impossible,” Harris says.

The most recent increase in the state's minimum wage was in 2009. Harris says Democrats plan to introduce legislation to hike the wage again, though they haven’t settled yet on what the new number should be.

But some low-wage workers say an increase is needed now. Mary Coleman works for minimum wage at a Popeye’s on Appleton Avenue in Milwaukee. She says her pay is not enough to cover bills and buy food, so she has to visit food pantries to make ends meet.

“It has put me in a situation where I’m forced to live with my daughter and her two children," she says. "She’s already struggling and then me there, you know. So it’s like I have to share my paycheck...and I have to do what it takes to take care of me."

Coleman also has a Quest card, a debit card for low-income residents who get government subsidies to buy food. But she says she’d gladly give up those benefits if she could take home a few dollars more a month in pay instead.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Wisconsin are in the same position as Mary Coleman, says Jennifer Epps-Addison, executive director of Wisconsin Jobs Now. She says these low-wage workers have to lean on the state or government-funded nonprofits because their jobs don’t pay living wages.

“These are very profitable companies whose entire business model relies upon having poverty wage jobs that are subsidized by taxpayers," Epps-Addison says. "So we want to see our elected officials hold those corporations accountable, make those corporations pay those workers fairly, because it impacts our entire economy when people don’t make enough to get by at the work that they’re doing."

Any legislation to boost the minimum wage in Wisconsin would likely face stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“It’s going to make Wisconsin less competitive, and if Wisconsin’s less competitive, it’s going to be less jobs for those individuals that were trying to get jobs in the first place,” says GOP Assemblyman Dale Kooyenga.

Kooyenga believes that in addition to fewer jobs, a higher minimum wage would lead to higher prices, for such items as fast food or clothing, and hurt business’ bottom line.

“If you’re going to raise prices, that also has a disproportional impact on consumers that are trying to buy products," he says. "So if you’re a family trying to go out to eat, you’re going to go out to eat less often because the prices will be higher because of a raised minimum wage."

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association did not return recent calls for comment. But back in July a spokesman for the group said labor is already one-third of the cost of running a typical restaurant and if owners had to pay more, they’d either cut jobs or raise prices.

The association also maintains that the majority of fast food workers are students or people picking up a second job, and not adults trying to raise families.