Opinion: We need a $21.25 minimum wage

Hochul’s proposal isn’t enough, a UPS package handler argues, the Raise the Wage Act is better.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Payday is Wednesday each week. By that time, I’ll only have $20 in my pocket. This is life as a low wage worker in New York City.

I work hard to take care of my 16-year-old daughter, who has autism, and my 65-year-old mother. My part-time job as a package handler at UPS pays $17.85 an hour. I never know how many hours I’m going to get, and the company has supervisors doing our work to get the job done while paying us less.

My mom was also a single mother. She raised seven kids on her own in Brooklyn. When my paycheck comes in, I take care of my daughter first. I make sure she has the food and clothes that a growing kid needs. I want her to have support now, so she won’t have to depend on anyone else when she grows up.

After providing for my daughter, there isn’t much left. I get help from family when I can, but they are struggling too. It is mentally and physically draining to always be on the edge of financial emergency. 

No one can survive on $17.85 in New York. We have all been hurt by rising prices over the last two years. Groceries. Clothes. Transportation. Not long ago, a hero at the local deli cost $5. Now it's $10 and it seems like every couple of weeks the price goes up again. Despite those price increases, the minimum wage has stayed the same. We all need a raise.

My union, the Teamsters, is negotiating our new contract with UPS and demanding pay increases and more full-time jobs. We also want to end the company’s abusive practices during the busy holiday season, like forcing double shifts that make it near-impossible to maintain a second job or have stable childcare. 

Part-time workers like me are responsible for a huge portion of UPS’s record profits. We make two-day shipping possible. I am saving what I can now to be ready to strike if UPS fails to deliver on a strong contract by the expiration of our agreement on July 31. While no one wants to strike, we are ready and willing to walk the picket line to get the pay that our families deserve. 

We’re not alone. Workers across the country are rising up. A decade ago, fast food workers in New York City kicked off the national Fight for $15 with a one-day strike. That movement culminated in a New York state law that increased the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour between 2013 and 2019. It was a huge accomplishment that made a difference for working parents like me. But since 2019 the minimum wage has stayed flat, even as prices skyrocket. 

If you take inflation into account, the minimum wage has lost over $2 of its purchasing power since 2019, according to the National Employment Law Project. It’s as if we’ve lowered the minimum wage down to $13.

Women of color like me are hit hardest. A majority of low-wage workers are women and people of color, and we are twice as likely to work low-wage jobs as white workers. About half of all single parents in New York earn near minimum wage. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul has proposed connecting future minimum wage increases to inflation, but that doesn’t address how much we have already lost. The governor’s plan also caps increases if annual inflation is over 3% or unemployment goes up, denying aid to workers when we need it most. Someone like me who is struggling at a couple of dollars over minimum wage wouldn’t see a raise for years under the governor’s proposal. 

There is a better plan. The Raise the Wage Act, sponsored by state Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Latoya Joyner, would increase the minimum wage to $21.25 by 2027 and guarantee future increases to match inflation. This would make low-wage workers whole and ensure that we never fall behind again. 

The difference between the governor’s plan and the legislators’ plan amounts to $50 per week or $2,600 per year. With that extra money, I would be able to buy my daughter two pairs of shoes rather than just one. I could pay my phone bill on time and have the peace of mind that, if my daughter’s school is calling in an emergency, I’ll get the call. 

The money is there to pay us more. As profits exploded during the pandemic, shareholders of major corporations like Amazon and UPS saw their wealth increase by $1.5 trillion. The workers at those corporations received raises totaling less than 2% of that amount.

Low-wage workers aren’t waiting for Albany to hand us what we deserve. We are fighting for it, like those striking fast food workers did a decade ago.

Our leaders in Albany once again have the opportunity to lead the nation by increasing the minimum wage to $21.25 and indexing it to inflation. Whether it takes rallying in the halls of power or striking our employers, low-wage workers are ready to fight for the raises we need.

Kurtissa Price / Submitted