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July 28, 2014

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Las Vegas helping lead charge in fight to reform minimum wage

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AP

Demonstrators rally for better wages inside a McDonald’s restaurant in New York, as part of a national protest, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013. Demonstrations planned in 100 cities are part of push by labor unions, worker advocacy groups and Democrats to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

MINIMUM WAGE: BY THE NUMBERS

$7.25: The federal hourly minimum wage since 2009 (also Nevada's minimum wage for workers who have employer-provided health insurance

$8.25: Nevada's minimum wage for workers who don't have employer-provided health insurance.

$9.32: Washington state's minimum wage, the highest in the country

4: Number of states with minimum wage rates lower than the federal rate (Georgia, Arkansas, Minnesota, Wyoming)

5: Number of states with no minimum wage law (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee)

19: Number of states with the same minimum wage as the federal rate

23: Number of states (plus Washington, D.C.) with a minimum wage rate higher than the federal rate

21.3 million: Estimated number of American workers whose wages would rise with an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour (16 percent of the workforce)

Dalven McClain, a 19-year-old fast-food worker, wants to make more money.

McClain works at a Las Vegas McDonald’s to save up for classes at UNLV. He earns $8.79 an hour, 54 cents more than the state minimum wage and $1.54 more than the federal minimum.

But he says it’s still not enough. He’s stuck living with his parents and hasn’t been able to afford college.

McClain has helped make Las Vegas a hotbed in the national campaign to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. The battle pits retail and restaurant workers against the businesses that employ them, and congressional Democrats against Republicans.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced the Minimum Wage Fairness Act in November. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the bill would hit the chamber’s floor for a vote this week. The bill is part of the Democrats’ 2014 midterm election campaign that also includes immigration reform and pay equity between men and women.

Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., joined supporters and a 16-ton bus painted with the words “Give America a Raise” for a rally through downtown Las Vegas on April 21.

Americans United for Change, a liberal group leading the campaign, chose Las Vegas to jump start its 20-state bus tour promoting the bill. It’s the third time in eight months that Las Vegas’ low-wage workers rallied for a raise. They coordinated protests with workers in 130 U.S. cities in August and December.

While workers rallied for bigger paychecks, partisan politics has so far stalled the bill in Washington.

President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders say the bill would lift 900,000 Americans out of poverty, citing a February report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

But Republicans lambaste it as a job-crushing burden on business, citing a loss of 500,000 jobs outlined in the same report.

To become law, the bill will have to pass the Republican-controlled House, where both mainstream conservatives and Tea Party backers assail the legislation. That makes a House vote unlikely before the November midterm elections.

In the Senate, Nevada Republican Dean Heller is expected to vote no this week as he has in the past.

“Sen. Heller believes that the minimum wage is best determined by the states, and this particular legislation is no exception,” Chandler Smith, Heller’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

A wage hike would not change much on the Strip. Hospitality workers there typically earn more than the proposed rate of $10.10, said Bethany Khan, spokeswoman for the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents 55,000 workers.

But for many restaurants and shops off the Strip, a minimum wage hike could be costly. State law requires employers pay $8.25 if they don’t provide insurance, or $1 less if they do. For a full-time employee, that means an additional $3,848 per year for a total of $21,008 in annual pre-tax wages.

“With jobs in the restaurant sector, this increase in the federal minimum wage can really impact an employer, particularly small businesses, with very thin profit margins and their ability to hire and maintain jobs,” said Cara Clarke, senior director of communications for the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Scott DeFife, executive vice president for policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association, said Congress should consider other ways to boost wages.

“Other necessary reforms — such as increased access to education and job training opportunities — are far more effective, targeted ways to help people in poverty and will have a more meaningful impact on an individual’s earning potential,” said DeFife, who lobbies Congress for McDonald’s, Wendy’s and other fast-food chains.

That’s the position that McClain, the Las Vegas fast-food worker, protested.

He and other employees stopped work to orchestrate a 15-car backup in the McDonald’s drive-thru during a recent breakfast rush. Amid a cacophony of honks and idling engines, McClain passed around a petition for employees to seek higher wages and improved working conditions. Fifteen of the 38 employees signed the petition, he said.

McClain, who has teamed up with Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada on the campaign, said the $13.8 million annual compensation of McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson, proves why Congress should raise minimum wage. McClain would need to work nearly 20 weeks to earn as much as Thompson makes in an hour, $6,634.

“Personally, I think it’s all baloney,” he said. “(Corporations) have it but they just don’t want to give it because it’s corporate greed.”

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