State Sen. Terrell McKinney, of District 11 in Omaha, stands in his office on Feb. 26, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

It has been more than 10 years since the federal minimum wage increased. On July 24, 2009, the federal government raised it from $6.55 per hour to $7.25. Over the years, it has become clear to millions of Americans that this wage is inadequate, and now lawmakers throughout the country are working to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. 

For Nebraska workers, the last minimum wage increase was much more recent. In 2014, voters approved a ballot initiative that raised it from $7.25 per hour to $8 in 2015 and to $9 in 2016. It has remained there since. The ballot measure proved popular among Nebraskans, passing with nearly 60% of the vote. Prior to this successful ballot initiative, Nebraska’s minimum wage had never been higher than the federal minimum. 

State senators in Nebraska’s Legislature have introduced bills this year to gradually increase the minimum wage over the next decade. 

The first bill, LB480, was introduced by senators from Omaha and Lincoln, including Terrell McKinney, John Cavanaugh, Machaela Cavanaugh and Matt Hansen. This legislation, if passed, would increase Nebraska’s minimum wage to $20 per hour by 2032, raising it one dollar per year starting in 2022. 

That raise falls short, however, among tipped workers, such as restaurant servers, who are left out. Tipped workers here only receive $2.13 per hour from their employers and must rely on tips from customers to earn a sufficient wage. 

Sen. Megan Hunt, of  Omaha, hopes to give tipped workers a raise with LB122, which would raise their minimum wage to $9 per hour. Under current state law, employers of tipped workers are supposed to ensure their workers are paid $9 per hour if their tips fall short. But Sen. Hunt says employers don’t always adhere to this rule. 

Nebraska State Senator Megan Hunt introduced LB122 to raise Nebraska’s tipped minimum wage. Photo by the Nebraska Legislature.

Although Nebraska’s Legislature is officially nonpartisan, conservative dominance often makes it difficult for progressive legislation, such as Hunt’s, to make it to the governor’s desk. 

Should LB122 fail in the Unicameral, Sen. Hunt has promised she will organize a petition drive to put the issue on the ballot for Nebraska voters to decide. 

“If this fails, we will bring this to a vote of the people. And I guarantee you, the people of Nebraska want this,” Hunt told the Omaha World-Herald

Some of Nebraska’s neighboring states have fallen behind, such as Kansas and Iowa where the minimum wage remains $7.25 per hour. Lawmakers in Kansas introduced a bill this year that would raise their minimum wage to $15 per hour over the next six years if passed. 

Other bordering states, such as South Dakota and Missouri, have surpassed Nebraska’s minimum wage. Currently, South Dakota has a minimum wage of $9.45 per hour, which increases annually to adjust for inflation. In Missouri, the minimum wage is $10.30 per hour, and it will increase to $12 by 2023. 

At the national level, the federal minimum wage has gained more airtime with President Joe Biden taking office. Raising the minimum wage to $15 was a major component of his platform as a candidate. 

Biden signed an executive order two days after taking office that raised the minimum wage for federal employees and contractors to $15 per hour. 

For workers in the private sector, however, it is unclear when they might receive a similar raise. The Biden administration hoped to include a $15 minimum wage in the widely anticipated COVID-19 relief and economic recovery package, but according to reports on Feb.18, Biden told a group of mayors and governors that he expected the minimum wage to be cut from the relief package and passed in a later bill.  (Update 03/18/21: Lawmakers were not able to include the policy under budget reconciliation.)

On March 5, during a series of votes on amendments to the COVID-19 stimulus package, lawmakers turned down an amendment to raise the federal minimum wage from Vermont Senator and two-time presidential candidate Bernard Sanders. Every Republican senator and eight senators from the Democratic caucus voted against the amendment. 

Sen. Sanders’ amendment would have raised the minimum wage to $15 over five years, as well as raised the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 per hour to $14.95 over seven years. 

As lawmakers around the country continue to debate raising the minimum wage, millions of people are struggling to pay their rent and other bills on a wage of $7.25 per hour. These people have waited 10 years for a raise, and the question remains how much longer they have to wait.

contact the writer at news@thereader.com


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