Hannah Michelle Bussa
In August, a coalition of Nebraska partners and advocates announced Raise the Wage Nebraska, a ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2026.
Ken Smith, the Economic Justice Director at Nebraska Appleseed, said this measure, if passed, will impact about 20% of Nebraska workers (195,000 Nebraskans) according to the Economic Policy Institute’s Report.
“Workers in low-wage jobs and their families benefit the most from these income increases, reducing poverty and income inequality,” he said. “Nebraskans should not have to choose between paying their rent and buying groceries. We all want to be able to provide for our families and raising the minimum wage is an important step toward making that a reality for many underpaid Nebraskans.”
Raising the minimum wage would help close the racial pay gap. Smith said 32% of Nebraskans who would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage are people of color.
“Over the last several years, the cost of living has increased dramatically while Nebraskan’s wages have remained stagnant,” Smith said. “It’s more critical than ever that we raise the minimum wage to lift our neighbors out of poverty while boosting our local economy.”
The most underpaid workers in the state are those working essential jobs. Smith said those jobs became even more demanding amid the pandemic.
“Our state works best when every Nebraskan is paid enough to care for themselves and their loved ones,” he said.
Nebraska Appleseed is just one of the organizations in the Raise the Wage Nebraska coalition. They are a nonprofit social justice organization that fights for justice and opportunity for all Nebraskans.
“We take a systemic approach to complex issues—such as child welfare, immigration policy, affordable health care, and poverty—and we take our work wherever we believe we can do the most good, whether that’s in the courthouse, at the Capitol, or in the community,” Smith said.
Another organization in the coalition is Rabble Mill. Jo Phillips, the Communications Manager, said Rabble Mill is a nonprofit that works to improve the lives of historically marginalized and excluded young people statewide.
“The current federal minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, hasn’t been raised in over a decade,” Phillips said. “It’s simply unsustainable for people to live off. The increased cost of living without adequate increase in compensation is preventing opportunity and innovation.”
Phillips said wages make the difference between young people being able to support themselves and go to college or not, families being able to provide for their children, and the ability for people to save money for large expenses like houses or retirement.
“While the state of Nebraska has a slightly higher minimum wage, it does not compensate for the increased cost of living,” Phillips said.
The current minimum wage of $9 per hour was enacted through a ballot initiative and voted on by Nebraskans, just like this Raise the Wage Coalition.
“To put it into perspective, in 1965, the median household income was $6,900,” Phillips said. “Adjusted for inflation, that same income would be $61,559 today. A minimum wage worker, working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, will make $15,080 before FICA taxes.”
Phillips said no person who isn’t independently wealthy or supported by family can adequately live off of $15,080 per year.
“We should remember that this fight for pay equity is long,” Phillips said. “In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. took this fight to Washington and demanded a minimum wage that would, rather poetically, be $15 dollars an hour in today’s money when adjusted for inflation.”
Phillips said raising the minimum wage is an ambitious and important undertaking, but it is also just the beginning.
“I was proud of Nebraskans voting to expand Medicaid,” Phillips said. “There is no reason that in the richest country in the world, its citizens don’t have access to affordable healthcare. Eventually, we must address this head-on. We should treat healthcare, including mental healthcare, as other first-world nations do—as a human right, not a privilege.”
Phillips said increasing the minimum wage stimulates the local and national economy, which benefits everyone.
The Arc of Nebraska is another organization in the coalition.
“The Arc of Nebraska promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and actively supports their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes,” Edison McDonald, the Executive Director of The Arc of Nebraska, said.
Raising the minimum wage would also benefit disabled Nebraskans.
“Competitive, integrated employment is a key part of living a meaningful and inclusive life in the community for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” he said.
McDonald said raising Nebraska’s minimum wage could make a tremendous difference in the lives of so many disabled Nebraskans.
“The opportunity to earn a fair wage ensures people with disabilities can make their own choices, support themselves, and truly be a part of the community,” he said.
McDonald said the majority of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities remain either unemployed or underemployed, despite their ability, desire and willingness to work.
“People talk about a ‘labor shortage,’ [but] it’s just not true,” he said. “We have a waiting list of thousands of Nebraskans with disabilities who want to work and need fair wages.”
Raise the Wage Nebraska’s ballot initiative would gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2026. Smith said the minimum wage would automatically adjust each year after that to account for increases in the cost of living.
The coalition needs to collect over 87,000 petition signatures across Nebraska for it to get on the November 2022 ballot.
“We encourage Nebraskans to pledge to sign the petition,” he said. “We’ll let supporters know when a petition circulator is near your area and how you can volunteer to help collect signatures.”
The online pledge to sign the petition can be found here.
“Please talk to your friends, family, neighbors about why this initiative is important––and if you’re not registered to vote yet, do it!” Phillips said. “2022 will be one of the most consequential midterm elections in American history. Make sure your voice is heard. Every vote counts.”
The Raise the Wage Coalition includes other partners committed to working together to ensure Nebraskans are paid a fair wage: ACLU of Nebraska, Heartland Worker Center, Holland Children’s Movement, NAACP Lincoln Branch, Nebraska Civic Engagement Table, Nebraska State AFL-CIO, No More Empty Pots, OutNebraska, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Nebraska, Power of People Omaha—Political Action Committee, Senator Megan Hunt, Senator Terrell McKinney, South of Downtown Community Development Organization, Together, Voices for Children in Nebraska and YWCA Lincoln.