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By Albor Ruiz
New York Daily News, Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News, 2/1/07

The Senate is set to pass legislation raising the federal minimum wage for nearly 15 million of the poorest workers in the country. Granted, a $2.10 an hour increase is not nearly enough, but it certainly is a small step in the right direction.

"The increase in the minimum wage is long overdue. I hope Congress and the President will move swiftly to enact sensible legislation that will demonstrate our nation's commitment to reward hard work."

These are not the words of a labor leader or a union activist.

These are the words of Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco. He is part of a group of business owners and executives around the nation who signed a statement in support of raising the minimum wage -- and sent it to members of the Senate.

The minimum wage has not been raised in a decade, and it is a national embarrassment. Today, minimum wage earners working 40 hours make all of $206 a week, or $10,712 a year, before taxes, which is far below the poverty line for even a small family.

Imagine trying to survive, not to mention raise children, on $200 a week, and the urgency -- and morality -- of approving even such an inadequate raise becomes crystal-clear.

More than 2.1 million African-Americans and 2.3 million Hispanics have been waiting for 10 years for a boost in their pay. On Jan. 10, the House passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority a bill raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 over the next two years.

"This is giving America a long-overdue pay raise," said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Queens). "Families have had to endure rising costs of living, from heating our homes to paying tuition for their children's college education, while real incomes have shrunk."

Yet two weeks later, the Senate defeated the bill, even though a majority of senators -- 54 -- voted for it. But opponents filibustered the measure, and now the Senate is poised to pass a watered-down version today. The new bill has the President's support. It excludes farm workers and others, and sweetens it for businesses with unnecessary tax breaks.

The businesspeople statement goes a long way to debunk the myth that increasing the minimum wage will cost jobs and elevate prices, favorite arguments of those who would keep millions of working Americans living in poverty.

These business executives, though, have formed Business Owners and Executives for a Higher Minimum Wage. Their motives range from a sense of fairness to a very practical financial reason: A higher minimum wage actually helps businesses.

"We expect an increased minimum wage to provide a boost to local economies," the statement said.

Even if, as expected, the bill passes the Senate today, millions of workers will probably have to wait months while the House, which already passed a bill, and the Senate reconcile their respective versions of the legislation.

"The landlord raises the rent, the gas company raises the cost of gas, supermarkets raise the price of food, the statement raises the subway fare, CUNY raises the tuition ... but no one raises the minimum wage!" said Rafael Duran, a restaurant worker.

Workers like Duran and their families have been punished enough for 10 years. The bill is a small step in the right direction. And that should be celebrated.

Copyright (c) 2007 Daily News, New York