The fight for $15: Unicorns might be easier to find

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Demonstrators pushing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Georgia were at it again recently.

They hold these gatherings every few months, and at this one a couple hundred people adorned with rally signs, stickers and t-shirts rallied at the steps of Atlanta’s City Hall. That’s less than a block from the state capitol.

Essentially, I witnessed them metaphorically bash their heads against the state’s legislative wall.

Georgia’s elected power brokers aren’t really into this whole minimum wage thing.

It’s as if legislators have been handed a dirty baby diaper, and they’re trying to hold it as far as possible from their noses without actually being spotted dropping it over a guardrail.

Georgia is one of just two states (along with Wyoming) with a minimum wage lower than the $7.25-an-hour floor set by federal law. (I'm told Georgia's minimum applies to few employers not involved in interstate commerce, like perhaps the owner of a locally-grown vegetable stand that only accepts cash.) Five Southeastern states have no minimum wage beyond that set by the federal government.

Georgia legislators have barred local governments from enacting their own minimum wage laws. That squashed just such a proposal by the city of Atlanta more than a decade ago.

Earlier this year, a few Democrats sponsored bills to almost immediately boost Georgia’s $5.15 hourly minimum wage to as much as $15. The proposals went precisely nowhere.

What are the chances it will pass in the next few years?

“One percent,” said State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a Republican and veteran of Cobb County’s delegation. “I want a unicorn for my backyard, but that doesn’t mean it is going to happen.”

None of his business

To clarify, Ehrhart doesn’t want to boost the minimum wage. In fact, he doesn’t want a minimum wage at all. He told me pay should be left up to employers and the market.

Depending on your choice of economists, you will hear that raising the minimum wage will give workers more money and boost the economy as they spend it, or that it will cause employers to cut jobs and limit economic growth.

Glad we could clear that up.

If an employer has to pay workers significantly more to flip burgers, watch our elderly parents or take care of our kids, the price Georgians pay for those services will go up, too. You might be able to handle more expensive fries, but how many working parents do you know who are ready to shell out more for childcare?

I can’t see how proposals to balloon Georgia’s minimum wage to $15 in one fell swoop would be good for consumers.

Then again, having lots of low-wage jobs – something Georgia excels at – is not great either.

Jobs paying less than $15 an hour accounted for over half the 41,000 positions recently listed by employers with the Georgia Department of Labor. Most of those were in agriculture/forestry or the services industries. The vast majority of the $15-and-under jobs, though, paid more than the current federal minimum wage.

At that recent Atlanta rally for a higher minimum wage, I ran into union members, activists, and workers.

A 25-year-old mom told me she could drop government assistance if she earned more than her $7.25-an-hour pay as a McDonald’s cashier. A 21-year-old Jonesboro woman told me she can’t cover the costs of getting an associate’s degree with her $8.50-an-hour job in childcare. And a 37-year-old man, who told me he is a former Marine who served in Iraq, said he sleeps at friends’ homes because he can’t make enough at Kentucky Fried Chicken to pay for his own shelter.

‘We’ll keep on fighting’

William Kirkham, a Douglasville home care worker, said he puts in 90 hours a week just so he can get by on $9.50 an hour.

At 48 years old, he was at his first rally for higher wages.

“We’ll keep on fighting this until we get it,” he assured me.

That could be awhile.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, was at the rally and said he plans to sponsor another wage bill once the General Assembly starts. But he acknowledged it’s not likely to pass this time around either.

That’s OK, Fort told me. “Industries are listening, and they are moving.”

Finally, the answer on these demonstrations: Georgia legislators aren’t necessarily the prime target.

Big business is being pressured to increase pay regardless of what the government does. Companies trying to fix deeper business issues are already moving in that direction. McDonald’s recently began paying at least a buck an hour more than local minimum wage at U.S. company-owned stores. And Walmart is boosting the hourly wages of 500,000 employees to at least $10 next year.

Meanwhile, Georgia legislators have ensured that the state’s minimum wage is irrelevant. Which, of course, means that when it comes to wage decisions, the votes that matter are left to Washington.