Almost every single Georgia Democrat in the state Senate is backing a bill that would raise the state minimum wage to $15 and build in annual increases to combat Georgia’s rising cost of living. But to pass, it’ll need bipartisan support in the Georgia General Assembly, which is under Republican control.
Atlanta Civic Circle spoke with one of Senate Bill 25’s sponsors, state Sen. Nabilah Islam (D-Lawrenceville), to find out what chance she thinks the bid for a $15 minimum wage has this legislative session. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. Georgia’s minimum wage is even lower, at $5.15 an hour, but the federal rate applies to Georgia workers in almost all cases.
We also talked to two millennial Atlantans, Brandon Beachum and Maurice Haskin, who’ve been working with the new Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW) to push for a $15 minimum wage. Workers around the country have been fighting for the $15 minimum wage for over a decade, saying that’s the bare minimum needed to cover basic living costs like housing, food, transportation, and health care.
Currently, a whopping 21 of the 23 Democrats in the state Senate are co-sponsoring SB 25, but they’re in the minority party. With 56 state senators, they’ll have to work with their Republican counterparts to get traction—and time is running short, as Crossover Day approaches on March 6. That is the deadline for when a bill must pass its respective chamber and cross over to the other side to remain viable this legislative session.
Islam says the key to winning bi-partisan support is centering the conversation around workforce development. “Governor Kemp frequently talks about workforce development being a big issue,” she said. “When jobs pay better, you get better recruitment. We have to pay our workers more.”
Islam said 23 states have passed bills similar to SB 25 since 2001, so raising the minimum wage to $15 in Georgia would make the state far more competitive for recruiting workers in a tight labor market. “If we’re the number one place to do business, we absolutely need to be the number one place for workers,” she said.
Millennials get organized
One group leading the push nationally to raise the minimum wage is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In November, it launched a Southern arm, the USSW, which has been working closely with service workers around Georgia and the Carolinas.
Both Beachum, who works at a Panera Bread store in Roswell, and Haskin, a line cook at Gaja Korean Bar in East Atlanta, are working with USSW to fight for higher wages and better worker protections in metro Atlanta.
Both think it will take worker solidarity to get a higher minimum wage law passed in Georgia. “Politicians supporting the bill need to understand that they have people behind them,” Beachum said. “If you mobilize the people, politicians that oppose this don’t have a leg to stand on.”
Supported by the USSW, Beachum was one of 25 workers at his Panera Bread store who last month demanded a $15 minimum wage, safer working conditions and fairer scheduling from their franchise owner last month.
Beachum, who currently makes $14 an hour, said metro Atlanta’s cost of living is significantly higher than in Illinois, where he relocated from about 18 months ago. “Rent in the area is definitely a lot higher,” he said. “Southern Illinois has relatively cheap rent, and you get more space for your money.”
Beachum has been living with his parents in order to save for a car and rides his bike to work, a 20-minute commute. “I feel guilty for eating out once a week or for even trying to have a social life,” he said.
Haskin has been working with the USSW since he took the job at Gaja about six months ago. “It’s very important that we get people together to meet and that we educate them,” he said. “Things like tipping, work hours, and lack of pay all need to be changed.”
“15 dollars isn’t enough but it’s a start,” Haskin said. “We’ve got to acknowledge the minimum wage, because it feels like we’re just stuck in the same spot.”
Haskin is making $18 an hour at Gaja, which is the first job he has ever had that pays above the $15 wage threshold. But it’s still not covering his living costs.
Even though Haskin has been working at Gaja for six months and is living with family in College Park, he still can’t afford a car. The high cost of his commute to work is one big reason why. He takes an Uber to get from College Park to East Atlanta and back every shift, which quickly gets expensive.
Beyond SB 25, Islam, who’s a first-term state senator, thinks affordable housing legislation is also needed so lower-wage workers can keep up with the rising cost of living.
“We need to combat the lax laws that are affecting workers,” she said. “People should be able to afford a home and not be priced out by Wall Street.”
But workers like Beachum and Haskins, who are living with family and still must save for months even to afford a car, have a long road ahead of them before they can move into a home of their own.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED IN YOUR LEGISLATURE
- Click here to find out the names of your state representative and senator.
- Click here for their contact phone numbers and emails.
- Use the General Assembly’s Under the Gold Dome dashboard to check a bill’s status in either the House or the Senate. You can look up legislators as well.