Photo Courtesy Jada Sartor Photo Courtesy Jada Sartor

The inflation rate is up big-time, but Michigan’s minimum wage is lagging far behind. That’s hitting home for families.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—The main focus for Jada Sartor is to be a devoted mom for her four children. But that’s a tall task when the going minimum wage rate is $9.87, sick leave is limited, and child care options are hard to come by in the state of Michigan.

Add in COVID-19, and Sartor, an experienced service industry employee, decided that it was worth it to stay home instead of go to work.

“It was just really difficult,” she said.

At the outset of the pandemic, Sartor was working at a West Michigan Meijer, a job that paid her less than a dollar above minimum wage, which was $9.65 at the time. Recently having returned from maternity, Sartor felt she was singled out for retribution. 

Her hours collapsed to 15 hours a week. She was barely taking home $200 per paycheck.

The bus route to work took a chunk out of her profit. So did getting to her stop in the first place.

“I wasn’t even making enough to get to or even take the bus,” Sartor said. 

Meanwhile, a babysitter cost at least half of that money, sometimes more, with few to no child care options available because of the pandemic.

Her family was staying at a motel with a weekly rate, a pressure that incessantly ticked against her paycheck.

The balance sheet wasn’t adding up. 

Eventually, Sartor quit Meijer to be a stay-at-home mom. Though she had little money coming in, she was saving greatly on expenses and able to scrape by.

“When I was working at Meijer’s, I was living at a motel with my kids,” Sartor said. “We were homeless.”

NEWS: Whitmer Gives 38,000 Childcare Workers a Bonus Using Money From American Rescue Plan

The Battle in Capitol and Court

Workers advocacy groups and those in favor of minimum wage increases say Sartor never should have been faced with that decision—not should have in a moral sense either, but in the sense that legally, they believe the wage should be higher.

In 2018, the group One Fair Wage circulated a petition to raise the minimum wage that received overwhelming support, enough to earn it a place on the election ballot as an initiative, through which citizens directly vote on a change to state law. Alternatively, the legislature retains the option to accept the initiative before it comes to a vote.

In this case, the Republican-owned legislature opposed the initiative, which would have increased the minimum wage for tipped and untipped employees to $12 an hour by 2022. 

So instead of letting Michigan voters decide, the legislature took matters into its own hands, adopting and then “amending” the legislation—the changes made effectively stripping the proposal of its potency. Under the current law, the minimum wage will not rise to $12 an hour until 2031, assuming positive economic conditions, and sick leave has been drastically cut. Guaranteed accrued sick time was also cut short, at a less-than-popular level.

Sarah Coffey, an organizer with the Restaurant Opportunities Center in Michigan, has been working on the issue since 2018 and was dismayed when the legislature took the dramatic, legally questionable step of gutting the measure. 

“This relates to everything we’re seeing nationally about Republicans trying to hide the ball on democracy,” Coffey said.

Many have disputed that this action was constitutional. In 1964, Michigan’s then-Attorney General Frank Kelly ruled that the legislature could not adopt and amend a voter-triggered ballot initiative within the same legislative session. In 2018, former Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, reversed that opinion.

Long story short: The case went to the state Supreme Court, which said it lacked the authority to rule on the issue. Now, advocacy groups are looking to the current Attorney General, Dana Nessel, a Democrat, to go against Schuette’s opinion. These calls have continued since 2019, when Nessel took office, but she has shown no signs of doing so.

EXPLAINER: How Michigan’s Voting Laws Could Change In 2022

A Fair Wage Going Forward

At the end of 2021, those same advocacy groups doubled down and brought another ballot initiative to voters—this time to push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Chantel Watkins, the lead organizer of One Fair Wage Michigan and the treasurer for the Raise the Wage Act, said she’s confident that citizens will again sign up and be eager to vote for $15 an hour.

“Honestly, we don’t expect any pushback,” Watkins said. “It really is now not a partisan issue. Everybody and anybody is affected by what’s going on with low wages, whether you’re a consumer or a worker.”

The inflation rate stood at 7% at the end of 2021, and the prices of household goods continue to balloon. However, minimum wage, on the track that the legislature set, only increased by 2%, or 22 cents. Nearly one-fifth of states have raised their minimum wages to adjust for price increases in the new year, while Michigan’s current law protects against raising the minimum wage when unemployment is too high, such as in 2021.

Meanwhile, frontline workers have had to take greater risks during the pandemic. Restaurant workers, the Restaurant Opportunity Center says, have received fewer tips and faced more punishment as they deal with customers who refuse to follow the rules or are put off by staff shortages.

Advocates say a $12 minimum wage was always a stepping stone, but $15 an hour is what’s necessary to entice workers back into the labor market and account for the increases in inflation. It’s what they believe is a “living wage.”

“Frontline workers have been impacted by COVID,” Coffey said. “So many restaurant workers have been forced to choose between taking care of their families or going to work to make money.”

Sartor will be first in line to sign the petition, which is currently under review by the state ballot committee. She’s already helped to circulate it. 

More than anyone, she thinks this would give her a chance to break free from a cycle of bills and overworking, underpaying labor conditions. 

“I want to hopefully see the housing market go back to a fair price so I can get a house for me and my family,” Sartor said. “That’s been a long-term goal of mine.”

RECAP: Good News on Paychecks and Taxes: 5 New Michigan Laws to Know for 2022