Kenneth Tyrone King, 51, is darting across Fifth Avenue North toward the downtown Birmingham Public Library with a backpack in one hand, a Coca-Cola can in the other and copies of The New York Times and other local newspapers tucked under his arm.
He says his part-time shift in the production department of a local newspaper has just ended, and he is on his way home. The job is minimum wage, but he is grateful for the work, he says.
King’s salt-and-pepper goatee borders a smile that appears whenever he talks about his wife, their 5-year-old daughter, and his church family. He credits prayer and his church for helping him through difficult times, especially in 2010 and 2011 when he juggled three part-time, minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.
“My wife was expecting,” he says, “and we were trying to get ahead in our bills. My pastor advised me to quit one of the positions because I would fall asleep standing up. Sometimes my coworkers would have to tap me to wake me up.”
King says that many times, he worked all three jobs in a single day. He would rise at 3:45 a.m. to catch the 5 a.m. bus to get to his job at Goodwill Industries on Green Springs Hwy. by 6:15 a.m.
“I would always try to get there about 45 minutes early in case the bus broke down or got involved in an accident to make it to work by 7 a.m.,” he says.
Then at 3:15 p.m. he would catch a bus to his second gig at a local market research company, where he conducted phone surveys from 4 to 8:30 p.m. Then he would walk to his job at American Printing to work an overnight shift. Because the city buses stopped running after 9 p.m., he often relied on friends for rides home.
“Sometimes a shift would end early due to production, and I would have to call someone at 2 or 3 in the morning to ask for my ride to come early,” King says. He winces as he recalls those moments. “I couldn’t afford a cab.”
King says he moved to Alabama from his hometown in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2008 to be near his oldest daughter from a previous relationship and his granddaughter. He soon learned that unlike Florida, Alabama had a sales tax but no state minimum wage beyond the federal minimum wage, which at the time was $5.15 per hour.
Alabama, in fact, is one of five states in the United States without a state minimum wage. The others include Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and South Carolina. Nineteen other states have minimum wages equal to the current federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour. Another 21 states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages that exceed $7.25.
State Rep. Darrio Melton (D-Selma) tried in 2014 to introduce legislation for a constitutional amendment to raise a minimum wage in Alabama to $9.80 over three years. With Republicans controlling the legislature, Melton’s bill never made it out of committee.
But 10 other states and the District of Columbia passed minimum wage increases this year, including Massachusetts, which plans to raise its minimum wage from $8 to $11 per hour by 2017, which will give it the highest state minimum wage in the nation. California’s minimum wage, at $9, will rise to $10 by 2016. And the city of Seattle recently approved a minimum wage hike to $15 over seven years.
But the debate over raising the federal minimum wage continues. The Fair Minimum Wage Act – which would increase it from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour over three years and higher after that, based on the Consumer Price Index — has been shelved in Congress for now. But this summer, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to bring the minimum wage for federal contract workers up to $10.10 per hour.
Seventy-six years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt established the first federal minimum wage – 25 cents – under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The same act also banned child labor and set laws regarding the 40-hour work week and overtime pay.
Since then, Congress has periodically raised the federal minimum wage. The last increase, from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, was in 2009 under President George Bush. But some experts say the federal minimum wage has not kept up with inflation and that low-income workers are falling behind. A Pew Research Center report, for instance, says that when adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage reached its peak in 1968 at what would have been equal to $8.56 in 2012 dollars. Another report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says the current minimum wage at $7.25 per hour is now 22 percent below the 1968 peak value.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report says, “Recent calls to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 and index it to inflation by 2016, as laid out in the proposed Fair Minimum Wage Act, would greatly improve the outlook for the nation’s lowest wage workers in sectors of the economy that have seen little to no wage growth.”
Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, says the federal minimum wage today, “has lost all connection to what it takes to live.”
“The whole idea originally behind the minimum was a living wage,” Douglas says, “the floor below [which] no one should fall if you work full time. … With a sub-living wage you don’t have the income to make a minimum living for your family and invest some of that into improving your skills to make more money.”
Another group, Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of church and other organizations, argues that a state earned income tax credit and a higher state minimum wage would make it easier for many Alabamians to pay for necessities such as child care and emergency car repairs that allow people to keep working.
“Too many working Alabamians can’t afford basics like nutritious food, decent housing and reliable transportation because their wages are simply too low,” says Arise Executive Director Kimble Forrister in a press statement.
But conservative groups like the Alabama Policy Institute, a Birmingham-based think tank, say that increases in the minimum wage have largely had a negative impact on workers and the economy.
“Since its inception in 1938, increases in the minimum wage [have] proven to increase market prices and eliminate jobs,” says Katherine Robertson, the API’s vice president. “As America’s economy struggles to climb out of the last recession, increasing the minimum wage will only serve as a drag to recovery and may even harm intended beneficiaries.
“While the intentions of the raise may be noble, the Congressional Budget Office’s report released last February concluded that the proposed increase would cause businesses to eliminate an estimated 500,000 jobs. As the minimum wage increase is forced on employers, the demand for minimum wage workers decreases. We have seen a similar result due to the burdensome regulations for employers under the Affordable Care Act.”
Robert Robicheaux, Ph.D., a professor of business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says that a rise in the federal minimum wage would produce a minimal, but positive, impact on the overall economy and on the workers who are retained in their jobs.
The CBO report does project that an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, once fully implemented in the second half of 2016, would reduce total employment by 500,000 workers, or .3 percent. But it also estimates that 16.5 million would have higher earnings in the second half of 2016 if the minimum wage is raised to $10.10 per hour and that the wages of 8 million earning slightly above $10.10 per hour would also rise.
On the other hand, Robicheaux says, a higher minimum wage could have a negative impact on small businesses because many have a bottom line is already thin in today’s economy.
“They can neither pass the increased price onto their customers, nor can they afford it out of their thin profit margins. Even the CBO said it could curtail job creation and small business development.”
But a major problem, says Robicheaux, is that too many jobs today are going unfilled because of a lack of skilled laborers.
“We have an education system from kindergarten to Ph.D., and beyond that [which] is allowing too many people to move into adulthood with insufficient skills to allow them to qualify for the jobs that are available,” he says. “We have people working in minimum wage jobs who don’t have the communication skills, the literacy skills, or the numerical skills to move into higher paying positions for which they would be qualified if they obtained the training that would enable them to perform work that’s needed.”
King, however, says a minimum wage increase would help working families like his now.
“I think it’s time for a minimum wage increase in Alabama,” he says, “especially for working families like myself and low-wage earning communities in general. … It would put me in a position to get healthcare, get my car repaired and put money into the local banks.”
In the meantime, King continues to work and says he is looking a second part-time job. He remains optimistic about his future and says he hopes to pursue a degree one day.
“I would like to be a librarian,” he says as he gathers his newspapers and backpack. “I love research. I love information. And, if the Lord wills, I’d like to go into ministerial counseling, too.”