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The Boston Globe

Business

On the Hot Seat

An urgent call for higher wages

Seth D. Harris

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Seth D. Harris, acting secretary of labor.

Acting US Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris has been talking to low-wage workers around the country about President Obama’s proposal to increase the minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25 by 2015 — a pay hike the White House estimates would give nearly 15 million people a raise. Katie Johnston of the Globe staff spoke with Harris after he met with workers at the Action for Boston Community Development food bank in Roxbury.

What have you been learning about low-wage workers?

It’s really an outrage that a full-time worker should still be living in poverty. And what these workers in the cities that I visited have helped me to understand is what that means: not merely to live paycheck to paycheck, but to never be able to catch up with the next paycheck, trying to choose which bill you’re going to pay, whether you’re going to pay for the electric or pay for food for your kids, whether you’re going to get your car fixed or whether you’re going to have heat in your house.

The last raise in the federal minimum wage was four years ago, the final step in a three-step increase started in 2007. But before that the minimum wage was $5.15 an hour for 10 years. Clearly this has not kept up with cost of living.

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The president has proposed a solution. He wants Congress to increase the minimum wage, and then he wants them to index the minimum wage to the cost of living, so as the cost of milk goes up, as the cost of utilities goes up, as rent goes up, the pay of minimum wage workers will also go up.

And that’s never been done before?

There are some individual states that have done it, but not the federal minimum wage.

What kind of pushback are you getting from employers?

We hear the argument that workers are going to lose jobs if the minimum wage goes up. There’s plenty of evidence on this by some of the top economists in the country: That’s not what happens. The argument we hear is this money goes to teenagers who are just going to spend at the mall. Only one in five of the workers who will benefit from the minimum wage increase is a teenager. This is not buying-a-super-sized Coke-at-the-mall money. This is feeding-your-kids money.

Even if the federal minimum wage goes up to $9 an hour, a husband and wife earning that much and working full time would make just over $37,000 a year combined — can a family live on those wages?

This increase, paired with other policies the president succeeded in getting Congress to enact, like the child care tax credit, the earned income tax credit, will help lift these families out of poverty.

Last year, the Department of Labor found more than $35 million worth of minimum wage violations, resulting in back pay for more than 107,000 workers. You’ve said the ability to enforce the law will be threatened by the sweeping federal budget cuts known as sequestration.

One example of what’s going to happen is my wage and hour division, which enforces the minimum wage, overtime protections, child labor law, family and medical leave act, and some other laws, is going to experience a cut. And there will be 5,000 fewer inspections [this year] of workplaces where we believe there is a violation of the minimum wage or overtime, or one of these other laws.

How will the sequestration cuts affect unemployment benefits?

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If you’re unemployed for more than 26 weeks, the federal government pays for it, not the state. Those workers, long-term unemployed workers, are going to have their benefits cut by 11 percent.

How else will workers be affected?

A million workers are not going to get [federal and state] employment services: resume help, help finding a job in a job bank, skills assessment, case management services, and training. In addition, 36,000 veterans are not going to get employment services; 44,000 military men and women transitioning into civilian life are not going to get help finding jobs in the civilian sector.

Unemployment is still a major issue. How would you describe the state of the labor market, and where do you think it’s headed?

We’ve had 35 consecutive months of private sector job growth. We would want to see more, but growth in jobs depends upon the economy. And we’re not seeing fast enough growth in the economy, partly because of the decision-making in Washington.

You became the acting labor secretary in January. So how does one get the “acting” dropped from that title?

I honestly have no idea. It’s not something that I’m seeking or pushing for.

But you would take the job.

I haven’t said no to Barack Obama yet.

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris.

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