The Issues: Minimum Wage

CBS News continues a month-long series titled "What Does It Mean To You?" focused on where the presidential candidates stand on major issues and how a vote for one or the other candidate might affect average people's lives.

In this report, CBS News Correspondent Richard Schlesinger looks at an issue of vital concern to millions of American workers: raising the minimum wage.

Summertime is a slow time for Maria Cornejo, but not an easy time. When school's out she only works one job, which means she has more time to play with her children, but less money to play with.

It's never really easy for her. Most of the year she works two jobs: as a cashier in a middle school and cleaning the post office. She works seven days a week and it's still not enough.

"I'm not able with my two jobs to pay all my bills," she says.

At least Maria makes a little more than minimum wage, which is $5.15 an hour.

Could she survive on $5.15 an hour? "No, no" Maria says, shaking her head. "$5.15 is almost what a gallon of milk costs at the stores, at the markets."

Maria could get some help soon, but not from either candidate. The city of Santa Fe, where she lives, just passed an ordinance requiring companies that employ more than 25 people to pay what's called a living wage: $8.50 an hour.

What would that mean to Maria?

"Buying something that I've been wanting to have and that I can't afford," she says. "More food, better food in my refrigerator, and more time spending with my kids."

The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $5.15 an hour for seven years. According to one study, if it had kept up with inflation every worker in the U.S. would now be guaranteed $8.49 an hour, almost exactly what the city of Santa Fe is telling employers to pay workers here.

Democrat John Kerry would raise the minimum wage, but only to $7.00 over three years.

"American workers are sharing less in wealth created by our country and that's not fair," says Kerry.

But Kerry and President Bush both worry that raising the minimum wage by too much could actually cost jobs.

The president has opposed a federally mandated minimum wage hike.

"It's very important that we have a wage policy which does not price people out of jobs," Mr. Bush says.

Maria Cornejo's problem is that her two jobs are not covered by Santa Fe's living wage law, so she's come to the mall looking for a new job that would pay her $8.50 an hour.

"It's a big difference," she says. "It's important to me."

It would mean that she'd only have to work five days a week – but only because of her local government.