Foon Rhee

How California is leading the charge on Fight for $15

Supporters rally outside the state Capitol last March as the Assembly voted to increase California’s minimum wage to $15 by 2022.
Supporters rally outside the state Capitol last March as the Assembly voted to increase California’s minimum wage to $15 by 2022.

California didn’t get the nation’s biggest minimum wage increase at the start of 2017.

But its 50-cent hike to $10.50 an hour did help the most workers by far (more than 1.7 million, or nearly 11 percent of the workforce) and produce the largest increase in total wages (nearly $1.5 billion a year).

In all, 19 states raised their minimum wage on Jan. 1, the most states ever in a single year. That boosted the earnings of nearly 4.3 million workers by $4.2 billion total, according to a new analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

While the minimum wage rose in seven states because it’s automatically adjusted for inflation each year, in the other 12 it came thanks to ballot measures or legislative votes. Voters approved the two largest – a $1.95 hike in Arizona and $1.53 in Washington state, according to the study.

It’s a good thing that states acted on their own because the chances for raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage are not looking good in the Trump presidency.

During the Democratic primaries last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders championed the Fight for $15 national wage crusade. Eventually, Hillary Clinton picked up the torch. But she lost.

As is his habit, President-elect Donald Trump has flip-flopped all over the place on this issue, suggesting at one point he favored raising the federal wage and at another that he wanted to scrap it altogether.

But we can guess which direction he’ll go based on his nominee for labor secretary, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, whose position is: There will be no raise with those fries. He’s sure to be asked about minimum wage during his confirmation hearing, which might not happen until February.

Now, 29 states and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wages – averaging $8.90 an hour – than the federal one. The other 21 states, however, include nearly 40 percent of all non-farm workers, who are being paid an average of 18.5 percent less, the institute says.

By November 2020, as more planned increases take effect, the average wage in states with a higher minimum will rise to $10.63. That means workers in the other states will make an average of 32 percent less, if the federal minimum isn’t raised.

To reduce wage inequality, the institute calls for indexing state wages to inflation and raising the federal wage, which hasn’t changed since 2009.

The institute notes that five Southern states don’t have their own minimum wage at all, so without the federal wage, workers in those states would be completely at the mercy of the market and employers.

On the other hand, California workers are headed toward a $15 minimum wage in 2022, with a series of annual increases set in law. That’s a sure thing, unlike Trump’s many campaign promises to help America’s workers.

By the numbers

Minimum wage increases in selected states:



New wage















New York








Source: Economic Policy Institute