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Connecticut Workers Fought for a $15 Minimum Wage — and Won

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has just signed legislation raising the state’s minimum wage to $15.

Activists chant for higher wages outside a McDonald's restaurant on April 8, 2014, in Stamford, Connecticut. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has just signed legislation raising the state's minimum wage to $15.

Takara Gilbert has long worked in Connecticut for the minimum wage, which has been $10.10 an hour since the beginning of 2017. She currently works at McDonald’s, but she’s also worked at retail stores like Home Goods and Marshall’s.

In every job, she’s put in her “blood, sweat and tears,” she said, but has still made the same pay. “Each job is different and unique, but you still make the same.” And it’s made life for her and her family very difficult.

“It’s a catastrophe,” Gilbert said. She’s currently helping pay the bills for her father because a couple of months ago he had a stroke and has been out on disability, but his checks weren’t stretching far enough. But her minimum wage paycheck also doesn’t go far enough. “It’s hard to pay bills on time,” she said, noting her family is “extremely behind” on the electric bill. She buys the minimum amount of groceries needed to get through each week. “My family, we’ve never been out to a restaurant, we’ve never had the luxurious things,” Gilbert said.

“It’s so sad, honestly sometimes I cry myself to sleep because I feel like I’m not doing enough to provide for my family,” she added. “It literally kills me inside.”

But Gilbert is one of more than 330,000 workers in Connecticut who will soon be getting a raise. After the state legislature passed a bill to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023, Gov. Ned Lamont signed it into law on Tuesday, May 28, 2019.

The push to increase Connecticut’s minimum wage to $15 an hour began five years ago, with the inception of the Fight for 15 movement that has staged a series of increasingly large strikes across the country to demand that wage floor. But in Connecticut, the movement hit “many years of frustration,” said Juan Hernandez, vice president of 32BJ SEIU in Connecticut, because “politics got in the way.” Lawmakers stood opposed, and the business lobby fought against increases, even arguing that raising it to $10.10 an hour would make companies flee the state.

That hasn’t happened. And ahead of last year’s elections, Fight for 15, SEIU, and other allied organizations made it clear to people running for the state legislature that raising the state minimum to $15 an hour had to be a priority if they wanted their support.

It worked. Lawmakers campaigned on the issue. Before the election, the state senate was split over whether to raise the wage, but supporters picked up six seats. Support increased in the house as well. And now “they delivered it,” Hernandez said. “That’s the way democracy works.”

Thanks to her involvement with that movement and the Fight for 15, Gilbert was in the state capitol watching when lawmakers in both the state house and the senate voted to approve the legislation. “Watching them vote was a miracle,” she said. When they finally voted yes, she jumped out of her seat and “smiled so hard, I’ve never smiled so hard,” she said. “I cried … I was completely shocked.”

“They heard us as one powerful voice,” she added. “We became so powerful that we touched the legislators’ hearts.”

With the vote and the governor’s signature, Connecticut joins a rare group: six other states — California, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York — have passed legislation to eventually raise their minimum wages to $15 an hour. With the addition of Connecticut, nearly a third of the country’s workforce now lives in a state with that wage floor, according to the National Employment Law Project.

Once her state’s $15 minimum wage goes into effect, Gilbert believes it will make a huge difference in her life. “Our rent would be paid and we wouldn’t have to worry; we would have more food,” she said. She hopes she’ll be able to buy clothes for herself (right now all of her spare money goes to bills), take her father out to eat and even buy a car. “I [won’t] have to worry and I’ll struggle less,” she said. “My dad wouldn’t have to see me cry as much as I do.”

Connecticut is already the fourth state this year to take this action, following New Jersey, Illinois and Maryland.

“It’s a movement that is growing and growing,” Hernandez said.

These legislative victories can be traced back to the influence of the Fight for $15, when fast-food workers in New York City first went on strike in 2012 to demand a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union. Since then, these states and a number of cities have made their demand a reality. Since its inception, the movement had secured $68 billion in raises for 22 million low-wage workers as of last year, thanks to minimum wage increases. When Gilbert got involved with the movement, “They gave me the reassurance that I didn’t have at the time to stand up and fight for something,” she said. “They gave me a voice when I didn’t have one and didn’t think I could have one.”

The demand for a $15 wage has even made its way to Congress, where this year, the House held the first-ever hearing on a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour nationally. Hernandez hopes to bring it to the race for president. “We are making sure that candidates for president know that if they want our support, they need to support our issues, and $15 is one of our issues,” he said. “We hope that next year we regain the presidency and the new president will commit to do the same thing that we did here in Connecticut.”

Gilbert wants to see more places pass a $15 minimum wage. “I feel like everyone should have $15 an hour,” she said. “As much hard work as we put into our work … we deserve it.”

“We are the Robin Hood of this era,” Hernandez added. “The rich have more, and they could share that extra money with the people in the bottom.”

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