In the battle over the minimum wage, low-wage workers are getting a helping hand from corporate America.
Dozens of executives and business owners are meeting with members of Congress Wednesday and Thursday, urging them to support a proposed hike of the baseline wage to $10.10.
While raising the minimum wage has backing from President Obama and congressional Democrats, it's facing tough opposition from some corporate interests and conservatives. Among those fighting to keep the wage at $7.25 an hour is the National Restaurant Association, which has argued that a pay raise would result in job losses. But others in the business world, including Costco (COST) president Craig Jelinek and Ben & Jerry's founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, are coming out in favor of the hike, arguing that near-poverty level wages sap the economy and taxpayers.
Raising the minimum wage "will provide a tremendous boost to the national economy," notes Jon Cooper, the president of Spectronics, a Westbury, N.Y.-based maker of ultraviolet equipment. "Companies that pay their workers poverty wages of $7.25 are in effect subsidized by other businesses and taxpayers, because those workers are the most likely to turn to government programs to get by."
What's Cooper referring to? The fact that employees earning rock-bottom wages often qualify for government support in the form of food stamps and other aid. A single Wal-Mart Supercenter store in Wisconsin may suck $1.7 million per year from taxpayers, or about $6,000 per employee, because those workers quality for public aid, according to a study from congressional Democrats last year.
Cooper, who spoke with CBS MoneyWatch before setting off to meet six senators on Wednesday and another 16 on Thursday, said he's part of a delegation of 26 executives meeting with both Republican and Democratic senators to make their case for a wage hike. Leo Hindery, managing partner of InterMedia Partners and the former head of TCI, will be joining the group on Thursday, according to Smart Capitalists for American Prosperity.
These days may be the toughest yet for workers trying to make ends meet on minimum-wage earnings. The inflation-adjusted federal base pay rate actually peaked in 1968, when it stood at $10.56 an hour. It has lost almost 6 percent of its purchasing power since 2009 as inflation has increased.
Back when his father started Spectronics in 1955, the minimum wage stood at $8.63 in today's dollars, Cooper notes. His company's 150 workers now all earn more than minimum wage, although a handful earn less than the proposed $10.10 rate.
"Nearly 71 percent of our 150 employees have been with us for over 10 years," says Cooper, who adds that he believes paying above minimum wage helps retain workers.
Even though the segment of the workforce earning minimum wage or below stands at only 3 percent of hourly and salaried workers -- a decline of two-thirds since 1979 -- a boost would likely have a "ripple effect," with businesses setting their wages just above the new minimum, Goldman Sachs economists Michael Cahill and David Mericle wrote in a Tuesday report.
Nevertheless, Cooper notes that he's realistic about the struggles of convincing lawmakers to agree to a wage hike.
"There is very broad support across party lines and with the public, but it only goes so far with Congress," he says. "They need to hear that business owners support increasing the minimum wage."