Group rallies in Detroit in support of $15 minimum wage

Candice Williams, The Detroit News
·4 min read

Feb. 23—Early in his career, Davante Burnley, 28, worked long hours earning about $11 an hour as a line cook, juggling jobs at two restaurants to care for his son.

It took its toll, he said.

"The stress of maintaining those jobs to keep the bills paid and virtually having my son be raised by day care and other family members caused me to spiral into an alcohol-dependent lifestyle and ultimately caused me to have a mental breakdown early on in my career," said Burnley, now an executive chef. "Through the grace of God I worked my way out of that, but it is a tough industry and I truly believe that if I was getting paid fairly at one location, and that's the goal, to get paid fair in one location, so we can raise our own children, so that we can pay our bills."

Burnley was among a small group to gather Monday outside of Sen. Gary Peters' office at the McNamara Federal Building in downtown Detroit as part of rallies across the country celebrating the Raise the Wage Act that is included in President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic stimulus relief proposal. The rallies, organized by One Fair Wage, are part of the Poor People's Campaign's weekly Moral Mondays initiative.

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The Raise the Wage Act, which Peters has co-sponsored, would increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 and end subminimum wages for tipped workers.

The effort faces an uphill battle with Republicans in the Senate, particularly since U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, recently expressed his opposition to the proposal. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that while raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 would increase pay for 17 million people and pull 900,000 out of poverty, it would also end 1.4 million jobs because employers would cut jobs to make up for higher labor costs.

About a dozen attendees, bundled up in the cold weather Monday, held signs and chanted "One Fair Wage."

"People, especially after this pandemic see how essential these workers are," said Chantel Watkins, an organizer with One Fair Wage. "Some people always want to argue and say that these people should get more education or something as a defense of why people don't deserve that money, but they really really do. Who else was working besides fast food workers and grocery store people when the pandemic was at its worst. Those people deserve more than $15 an hour so we're doing a bare minimum fight right now."

Watkins added that a higher minimum wage is also needed for tipped workers as well as gig workers, people with disabilities and those 17 and younger who work.

Among those in support of the effort was Lisa Ludwinski, owner of Sister Pie Bakery on Kercheval Avenue in Detroit.

Ludwinski said she increased her staff's wages last year from an average of $12 an hour to a minimum of $15 an hour. She also eliminated tipping. There are 12 people on staff, including herself. She said she didn't feel comfortable with people having to depend on tips.

"I can't say that my business is successful if not every person who works in the business is thriving," she said. "Workers cannot thrive, they can barely live on tipped wages at the subminimum wage. I fully support One Fair Wage and am ready to support other restaurant and bakery owners as they have to make hard choices and reimagine their business plan to make it work. I know we can do it."

Ludwinski said she was able to increase wages by not replacing workers who left for other jobs, obtaining a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and by raising prices.

"We raised prices to match the raise that we would need to give the employees in order for them to match what they had been making with tips before," she said. "I think bringing the customers into the conversation and letting them know exactly why our prices were changing, we didn't really get any complaints about the prices changing. ... It shows to me that people are willing to spend more especially when they know employees are getting paid a living wage."

As for Burnley, the Bloomfield Hills resident eventually started Exchange Detroit, a Detroit-based pop-up catering and private chef business with a partner.

"That's actually what made us start our own company was that we weren't getting paid fair wages working for other people," he said. "It got to the point where we said we have to work for ourselves and give back and pay people."

cwilliams@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN