Under pressure to raise the state's minimum wage, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker confidently declared that there was no need. Low-wage workers had filed a complaint charging that the state's minimum wage -- $7.25 -- did not constitute a "living wage" as mandated by state law. But the Republican governor's administration, after examining the issue, announced on Oct. 6 that it found "no reasonable cause" for the workers' complaint.
That official government finding, according to documents reviewed by the International Business Times, was largely based on information provided by the state's restaurant industry -- which represents major low-wage employers including fast-food companies.
The Raise Wisconsin campaign, which is pushing for a higher minimum wage, requested all documents on which the state based the "living wage" ruling. And the only economic analysis that the administration released in response was one from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association -- a group that lobbies against minimum wage increases, and whose website says it is includes low-wage employers such as "fast food outlets" and "corporate chain restaurants." The restaurant association's study argued that a minimum wage increase would harm the state. It did not actually address whether workers can survive on the $7.25 minimum wage.
"It's outrageous that Walker's administration only thought to consult the restaurant industry, and not the workers themselves," said Dan Cantor, the national director of Working Families, one of the groups that has been leading the effort to raise the minimum wage in Wisconsin. "In Scott Walker's world, regular people don't matter, only corporations," Cantor said. Walker has received major campaign contributions from the restaurant industry.
In response to IBTimes' request for comment, Walker declined to say why his administration used literature from the restaurant industry to determine whether the state's minimum wage fulfilled Wisconsin's legal requirements. His office referred questions to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, and issued a statement saying: "Governor Walker wants jobs in Wisconsin that pay two or three times the minimum wage. He is focused on finding ways to help employers create jobs that pay far more than the minimum wage or any other proposed minimum."
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development told IBTimes: "The Wisconsin Restaurant Association study is one of several published and widely publicized studies that point to significant job losses as a result of an increase in the minimum wage. It was included as an example of the many publicly accessible studies on the issue that are available for review."
Nationally, nearly half of all restaurant workers live at or near the poverty level. Some low-wage employers have acknowledged that people who work for them can scarcely make ends meet. Last year, McDonald's corporate documents effectively admitted that its low-wage jobs do not provide adequate income. The company advised its workers to take second jobs. The internal "McResource Line" suggested selling unwanted Christmas gifts on eBay or Craigslist to bring in some cash, and told workers to break their food into smaller pieces in order to stretch out meals yet still feel full.
Democrats have made GOP opposition to a higher minimum wage central to their 2014 election campaign. This week, they slammed Gov. Chris Christie for saying he is "tired of hearing about the minimum wage." They have criticized Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner for saying he wants to eliminate the minimum wage.
Some Republicans have responded by embracing a higher minimum wage, but not Walker, who is locked in a tight reelection battle and is seen as a prospective 2016 presidential candidate. With various cities and counties in his state voting on minimum wage referendums in 2014, he drew withering criticism for saying, "I don’t think [the minimum wage] serves a purpose." Earlier this month, as his Democratic challenger, Mary Burke, surged in the polls, Walker's administration was forced to respond to the low-wage workers' complaint.
In a September 24th filing, Wisconsin Jobs Now (representing more than 100 state residents) argued that the current minimum wage violates state statutes requiring "every wage paid" in the state to be a "living wage" -- a term defined as enough to "enable the employee" to maintain himself under "sufficient" conditions and welfare. Wisconsin's current minimum wage provides an annual income well below the federal poverty line for a two-person household. According to data compiled by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Amy Glasmeier, a single parent with one child would need to earn more than double the state's existing minimum wage to cover essential expenses such as housing, food and health care.
State law required the Walker administration to investigate the workers' complaint; 12 days later, Walker's Department of Workforce Development declared that the state's minimum wage is a living wage. But when Walker officials were asked for documents on which the investigation's ruling was based, they released only a single study -- one published by the Wisconsin Restaurant Association that argues that raising the minimum wage could "do more harm than good."
The Wisconsin Restaurant Association is a partner of the National Restaurant Association, one of the leading opponents of raising the minimum wage. The Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy reports that the National Restaurant Association is funded by low-wage employers like McDonald's and Yum! Brands.
According to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Walker's election campaigns have taken in more than $200,000 from donors in the restaurant industry.