Want to really thank essential workers? Give them a raise | Aryanna Hunter

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We’ve all seen the banners: “Thank you essential and frontline workers!”

They’re flying out front of our community businesses, displayed on billboards as we drive down the road, and advertised to us on television. This newfound admiration and respect for those who have been doing the jobs that were often overlooked and looked down upon is strange to me. And honestly, I’m not buying those superficial thanks.

Aryanna Hunter (Capital-Star file photo)

My mother waited on tables for more than 50 years. She’d come home exhausted from running from table to table, tray in hand, serving everything from fine cut steaks to endless salad and breadsticks.

At that time she was earning just $2.13 an hour and was working three waitressing jobs just to make ends meet. This was back in 1998.

Today, in Pennsylvania, many of our frontline workers are still just making $2.83 per hour (they got a bit of a raise in the last 20 years) and relying on tips to get them to the minimum wage of $7.25 – though that’s rarely the case. 

While folks were standing with weapons on the Capitol steps demanding our counties reopen in what they felt was a desperate need of getting their haircut, nails done, and eating out at restaurants. Those who work in those industries are making more money on unemployment than when they did working full-time. 

The CARES Act ensured that unemployed workers received an enhanced benefit of $600 a week through July 31. This is in addition to any state-level unemployment benefits workers receive.

So here’s the math.

If you were making $7.25 per hour and worked 40 hours a week you were only bringing in $1,160 a month. Now, with the extended benefit of $600 a week you are bringing home at least $2,400 a month. That’s more than double your income before the pandemic hit our nation. 

We have businesses reopening, disproportionately women, 70 percent of service workers are women, and people of color, being put at risk, the very same people that likely don’t have access to adequate healthcare and testing. Those who now need to find childcare and their children and now their children are being put at greater risk. All while going back to making just $2.83 per hour.

If this isn’t a wakeup call to those in positions of power to actually DO something I don’t know what is. Not only do we need to extend the enhanced unemployment benefit we need to raise the minimum wage. 

There have been previous bills proposing an increase in the minimum wage and eliminating the tipped wage that have never made it through the Republican-controlled Legislature here in Pennsylvania. In fact, the General Assembly hasn’t passed a minimum wage increase in more than a decade. 

American service members are patriots not props. Politicians forget that at their peril | Aryanna Hunter

I’ve been writing about getting rid of the tipped wage for years now and demanding politicians make bold steps to ensure a living wage for hourly workers – I’m sure those who follow me feel like I am a broken record. 

But as our nation navigates a pandemic, as our new normal quickly adjusts to being just our normal, and our legislators determine what is important to their next reelection campaign, I hope they keep a few things in mind.

Unemployment is at its highest point since the Great Depression and it’s only going to get worse. Schools may reopen in the Fall but families are still struggling to determine what is best for their children, and wages must support our ability to rebuild our economy. 

What I hope Americans begin to learn through this pandemic is that our essential workers were essential before our governments told us they were. Our frontline workers have always been on the frontlines ensuring we are taken care of long before a politician told us that in a speech.

If we really want to thank those who are working 8, 10, 12 hours a day in masks – ensuring we can eat a meal out with our families, buy groceries, take our children to the doctor we need to end the tipped wage and raise the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour. 

Opinion contributor Aryanna Hunter, of Pittsburgh, is an Iraq War veteran, author, advocate, and founder of What a Veteran Looks Like and MeTooMST. Her work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.