Corporations Won’t Pay $15 an Hour Unless They’re Forced To

A new report reveals that the vast majority of big food and retail corporations in the U.S. aren’t paying anywhere near a $15 minimum wage.
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Pedestrians walk past a Target Corp. store in New York (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The vast majority of big food and retail corporations in the United States aren’t paying anywhere near a $15-anhour minimum wage, according to a new report from Harvard researchers and the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

The study, released Tuesday, looked at 66 corporations, including Amazon, McDonald’s, and Starbucks, and using Facebook and Instagram ads targeted to workers, it ultimately gathered data from nearly 20,000 workers during two separate periods in 2021. 

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The findings show that the vast majority of these companies are still paying under a $15 minimum wage, offering unlivable wages to millions of workers during a period of enormous flexibility in the job market

“Occupations and industries don’t set wages—employers set wages, and employers are regulated by minimum wage, and employers are on the other side of workers’ efforts to organize and have protests calling for fair conditions,” Daniel Schneider, a Harvard Kennedy School professor of public policy and co-director of the Shift Project, told VICE News. “But these firms disclose very little about how much they pay, and who earns what in their workforces.”

The study found that workers at some of these companies make as little as $10 an hour or less–even when their top executives are making tens of millions of dollars in the same year.

One of the worst offenders was Dollar General, where 92% of workers make under $15 an hour, more than half of all workers make under $12 an hour, and the company’s CEO received more than $58 million in total compensation last year. Then there’s McDonald’s, which said last year it would raise its average wage to $15 an hour by 2024, and where nearly nine in 10 workers make under $15 an hour. The hotel chains Wyndham and Best Western pay 87% and 78% of workers under $15 an hour respectively. 

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And at Starbucks, the coffee giant that is currently resisting a nationwide campaign of unionization at its stores, more than 60% of workers made less than $15 an hour, according to the study. Starbucks EVP Rossan Williams said in October that Starbucks would increase its starting wage to $15 an hour by this summer. 

The handful of companies where very few workers are making at least $15, according to the tracker, include Amazon (which has a $15 minimum wage) and Target, which said in June 2020 that it would raise its minimum wage to $15. But Schneider pointed out that in the case of Target, 82% of workers make between $14 and $16 an hour.

“$15 really is the minimum [at Target]," Schneider said. "But it’s also not that far off the maximum.”

Though many states have raised their minimum wages in recent years, the federal minimum wage has remained stuck at $7.25 an hour; for over a decade, this has been the wage floor in 20 states collectively populated by more than 90 million people. A 2021 effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour was voted down by every Senate Republican and eight senators in the Democratic caucus, including Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. 

“Almost every firm in our data has some exposure to a higher than federal minimum wage here,” Schneider said. “But while that may make some difference for workers who are not covered by those wages, there are still lots of workers around the country who are a lot closer to $7.25 than they are $15 at these large companies.”


But Schneider said that unlivable wages aren’t the only challenges these workers face. 

“Practices like unstable and unpredictable work schedules and insufficient hours shape the quality of jobs, and they intersect with low wages,” Schneider said. “It’s not just that some folks are earning less than $10, they’re often not getting enough hours at $10. Time and money really fit together.”

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