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Alabama Fast-Food Workers Rally To Defend City's Wage Hike

A coalition of clergy, fast-food workers and labor advocates rallied Tuesday in Montgomery, Ala., to defend a bill establishing a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour in the city of Birmingham, Ala.
Courtesy of Raise Up For $15
A coalition of clergy, fast-food workers and labor advocates rallied Tuesday in Montgomery, Ala., to defend a bill establishing a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour in the city of Birmingham, Ala.

A coalition of fast-food workers, clergy and advocates rallied at the state capitol in Montgomery, Ala., Tuesday as a fight escalated in the state over a proposed minimum wage.

Alabama has no minimum wage, and last year, the Birmingham City Council voted to approve an increase from $7.25 (the federal minimum wage that most employers go by) to $10.10 an hour in the future. But a bill filed in the Alabama Legislature on Feb. 11, if passed, would prevent the city from establishing its own minimum wage, which would block the proposed increase.

"I want to be making $15 [an hour] but I'll settle for $10.10," Bush Paulding, a fast-food worker who lives in Birmingham, tells us. "It's all about justice ... about being treated fairly."

We reached Paulding on his cellphone as he and a group of fast-food workers approached the capitol in a caravan. He is a father of three children and has worked as a janitor at McDonald's and Burger King.

He currently makes $7.25 an hour, which he says "is not enough for me to live off of." A living wage for a family in Birmingham is closer to $16 an hour, according to this living wage calculator.

Paulding says the hardest part of not being able to afford things that most other families seem to have is the look his kids give him when he tells them they can't buy something. The look is, "I thought you went to work and we're broke already? ... It makes me feel inadequate," he says.

The food industry is one of the biggest employers of low-wage workers, and a union-backed national movement called Fight For $15 aimed at raising wages has helped spur proposed minimum wage hikes in New York City and Washington, D.C.

In 2014, Seattle enacted a law to slowly raise its minimum wage — currently at $12-$13 an hour depending on the employer — to $15 an hour over the course of several years. Los Angeles is slated to boost its hourly minimum wage on July 1 from $10 to $10.50, with a goal of $15 in 2020.

Now, Alabama is one of several states where cities that have passed wage increases are clashing with state legislators who oppose local minimum wage hikes. According to the New York Times, legislation has been introduced in Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, Pennsylvania and Washington to thwart local wage initiatives.

As we've reported, an estimated 52 percent of fast-food workers rely on taxpayer-funded public assistance programs such as SNAP and Medicaid. This has led to criticism that middle-class taxpayers are subsidizing the fast-food companies, by paying for workers' food and medical bills with public subsidies.

Not everyone is convinced that raising the minimum wage is the best solution. As economist Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute told us, "If we were to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, I think most economists, including me, would argue that that would result in a lot fewer workers," since fast-food companies would slow down on hiring.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.

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