Wisconsin Examiner: Still fighting for $15 Twelve years after the last minimum-wage increase, some workers and business owners say it’s time for a change

By Erik Gunn
Wisconsin Examiner, July 19, 2021. Also in Urban Milwaukee.

Years ago when he was working for the discount retailer Kmart, Gary Lemke saw the cost of low wages: high employee turnover. Lemke estimates as many as half the workers would leave in a year. 

That meant more than just having to hire and train new people. He is convinced it harmed the bottom line.

“You don’t just lose workers — you lose customers as well,” says Lemke. “If you’re losing 50% of your employees every year, you’re losing a lot of potential business.”

That’s why Lemke’s landscaping business in the Calumet County village of Potter pays its staff well above the official minimum wage. “People work harder and stick with you when they’re making a living wage,” he says.

On Saturday, July 24, the U.S. will mark a dubious anniversary for Lemke and others who think it’s past time to substantially hike the minimum wage. On that date, it will be 12 years since the last federal minimum wage increase in 2009, from $6.55 an hour to $7.25 an hour.

And because Wisconsin’s minimum wage matches the federal one, the state minimum has been stuck there for that long, too. ...

Business support

... Some who support raising the wage have joined a national campaign called Business for a Fair Minimum Wage.

One of those is Steve Dyme, who owns Flowers for Dreams, a florist with shops in Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit. Since its founding in 2012 the business has embraced social justice causes and donated 25% of its profits to charity. 

In line with that, Dyme has been raising wages for the 80 employees in the company, including 15 in Milwaukee. The floral industry has tended to be a low-wage industry, he says, especially at the entry level. But in January 2021, Flowers for Dreams set a starting wage of $15 an hour.

“In Milwaukee in particular, we’ve had the least amount of trouble acquiring talent, and getting team buy-in and team commitment,” Dyme says. “I think we’ve become a magnet for the best floral designers and florists in the area. That’s in no small part because of that really competitive wage — twice the state and federal minimum.”

Dyme says he would like to see more companies embrace the business case for a higher minimum wage. 

“It benefits our top line, and it helps recruit and retain talent,” Dyme says. ...

Landscaper Gary Lemke sold most of his business to an employee a couple of years ago, while he stayed on to do the design and sales work. 

“He’s even more of a believer in paying people a living wage,” Lemke says of his successor. “Because without that he would be turning over people, and I’m sure he would have given up a long time ago on the business.”

At the time of the sale, the starting wage was $15 an hour, he says. It’s now up to $17. ...

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