What's a 'Living Wage' in Wisconsin?

A crowd addressing wage issues at the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisc., in 2011 Photograph by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Low-wage Wisconsin workers and a labor-backed coalition are suing the state’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, demanding a higher minimum wage.

At issue is unusual language in Wisconsin’s century-old minimum wage statute. Rather than just establishing a wage floor, a 1913 law also states that the wage should be “a living wage,” and it allows Wisconsinites to bring complaints to the state Department of Workforce Development if they believe it falls short. The executive branch then has the authority to appoint a wage council to address the issue, or even to raise the wage floor itself, subject to legislative review.

Citing that law, Wisconsin labor activists and workers brought about 100 complaints to the DWD last month. “I often put off paying for my diabetes test strips because I can’t afford them even with insurance from my husband’s job,” wrote Milwaukee food server Denise Merchant in one of the affidavits. “I have custody of my son’s two kids and I never have the money to really take care of them and raise them up right.” In a three-sentence letter (PDF) issued to one complainant on Oct. 6, a DWD official announced that the department had found “no reasonable cause to believe that the wages paid to the complainants are not a living wage.”

Jennifer Epps-Addison, who directs Wisconsin Jobs Now, one of the labor groups behind the lawsuit, says the state didn’t bother to contact any of the workers who brought the complaints, and the only economic analysis DWD provided when asked to explain its decision was a June study (PDF) from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association predicting that a $10.10 minimum would cost Wisconsin 16,500 jobs. WJN notes that the restaurant industry has contributed to Walker’s campaigns and that many economists support a $10.10 wage.

Asked about the suit, a spokesperson for DWD e-mailed: “While the Department has yet to receive formal notification of a lawsuit being filed, we would point out that most of the complainants who are arguing the minimum wage is not a living wage are making more than the minimum wage—up to $15.07 an hour.”

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