Imagine trying to live on pay of $7.25 an hour. Even if you managed to work full eight-hour days, you'd be making only about $58 a day, $290 a week, or a measly $15,000 a year. And out of that would come taxes and other deductions.
According to the standards of the federal government, you'd be living in poverty. Yet $7.25 an hour is the federal minimum wage set by Congress. State legislatures can and do set state minimums higher than the federal rate, but never lower, much as some would like to.
Far too many workers have no choice but to take minimum wage jobs, no choice that is, but to live in poverty. New research out of Columbia University's law school lays out the sorry details of the minimum wage workers' very serious situation, one that should never be tolerated in a country with such riches as ours.
In many states, the minimum wage laws are but barely enforced, in part because there's little or no money budgeted for enforcement. But it's also because the government agencies charged with enforcing the laws are clearly not much interested in carrying out their mandate.
Equally at fault are the governors and state legislators who've done virtually nothing to try to help their state's neediest workers earn a decent living. They have to be aware that no one can make a decent living at the current minimum wage rates.
The government officials who have been ignoring the problems could at least try to make sure that employers pay workers the legal minimum, however inadequate it might be. And the government officials could apply effective pressure to raise the minimum. They could, but given their record in such matters, that's most doubtful.
Congress could raise the federal minimum, but having just recently raised it, that's extremely unlikely, even though it should be obvious to everyone that a higher rate is needed to effectively help the many working people who badly need help.
It may be hard to believe, but despite the great need of workers and despite the widespread violations of the minimum wage laws, five states - Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi – have no agency assigned to enforce the minimum wage laws and other laws designed to protect workers rights.
The researchers also found that a majority of states do not fine or penalize employers who violate the minimum wage laws and other wage and hour laws. Which means that employers "have little or no incentive to obey wage and hour laws if the only repercussion for violating them is to have to pay wages owed in the first place."
The report warns that "without meaningful enforcement by state regulators, some employers will simply disregard their legal obligation if doing so allows them to save time, money or effort, putting the majority who wish t abide by the law at a significant competitive disadvantage, This creates a regulatory race to the bottom by states as they seek to compete to attract businesses."
Most important, it denies workers the basic rights and protections the law promises them but often fails to deliver.
Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than half-century. Contact him through his website, dickmeister.com, which includes more than 300 of his columns.