Big retailers are finally on board with $15 minimum wages, but the pandemic revealed that workers need a lot more from their employers

Fight for $US15 ($AU21)
Is a $US15 ($AU21) minimum wage enough anymore? Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
  • Workers and activists have long pushed for a $US15 ($AU21) federal minimum wage.
  • The ongoing labor shortage has prompted numerous companies to raise pay.
  • But advocates say that a $US15 ($AU21) minimum wage isn’t the end-all-be-all for labor.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Walmart-owned Sam’s Club told workers this week that it wants them “to feel valued” and be “treated with fairness, kindness, and empathy.” That messaging came alongside a chain-wide minimum wage raise to $US15 ($AU21) an hour. Around 95% of the warehouse chain’s workers were already making at least that, but the aim is to have the company’s “average hourly rate” established at over $US17 ($AU23).

“We want you to be competitively paid, whether you’ve found your destination job as, say, a forklift operator, meat cutter or cake decorator, or you’re just starting out and eager to climb the ladder,” CEO Kath McLay wrote in a memo to workers.

And Sam’s Club isn’t the only business that’s been touting a new minimum hourly wage, even as Congress’ efforts to raise the federal minimum wage have seemingly stalled out. Both Walgreens and CVS have also established $US15 ($AU21) as an hourly minimum wage. Amazon previously established its minimum wage as $US15 ($AU21) an hour in 2018. The e-commerce giant also raised pay for half a million workers, and on Tuesday announced that 125,000 new workers would be hired with an average starting pay of $US18 ($AU25) an hour.

Still, throughout much of the US, many employees still aren’t anywhere near a $US15 ($AU21) hourly wage. A March 2021 report from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning, pro-union think tank, found that a $US15 ($AU21) minimum wage would boost earnings for 32 million workers, or 21% of the total US workforce.

The EPI also found that “rising costs of living” have “diminished the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage” by 18% since 2009, leading to “a devastating fall in the earnings of the lowest-wage workers.”

Activists are currently focusing on certain business giants that haven’t yet established an hourly baseline of $US15 ($AU21).

“We won’t stop fighting until McDonald’s and other fast-food companies pay at least $US15 ($AU21) an hour, which is the bare minimum workers anywhere need to survive,” Patricia Mosley, a Michigan-based McDonald’s worker associated with the labor movement Fight for $US15 ($AU21) said in a statement sent to Insider.

“McDonald’s USA recently announced an average 10 percent pay increase at its corporate-owned restaurants, while many franchisees are exploring increased wages, offering tuition assistance and piloting backup childcare programs,” a McDonald’s USA spokesperson said in a statement sent to Insider.

Retail workers in particular have acquired more leverage through the coronavirus pandemic. Some have rage-quit their jobs, in response to frustrating working conditions and abusive customers. Certain workers have begun “ghosting coasting,” where they show up for work long enough to get paid, only to then disappear. Retailers are beginning to address how the ongoing labor shortage may affect the holiday season, and that often means offering higher pay and signing bonuses to attract candidates and bolstering retention through competitive benefits. Companies like Amazon and Walmart have doubled down on perks for workers, like educational benefits.

While it may not go a long way in practice, a $US15 ($AU21) baseline wage remains a key goal for some activists and workers. Labor activist group United for Respect’s corporate accountability director Bianca Agustin said in a statement to Insider that raising base pay to $US15 ($AU21) an hour “would be the right thing to do and smart business practice, so associates can help ensure the safety and profitability of Walmart stores in the near and long term.”

Walmart’s current average wage across US stores is $US16.40 ($AU23). Walmart worker and UFR member Peter Naughton said that he hopes his employer will raise its base pay, as doing so could change employees’ lives and spur wage increases from rival retailers.

“I might be able to get my own apartment,” Naughton said. “I’d have more money to spend. In fact, that would help corporations like Walmart because people would have more money to spend.”