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Workers, Politicians Debate Raises for US Low-Wage Workers

Thousands of protesters gathered at fast food restaurants around the United States on Thursday to demand a higher minimum wage for American workers. In the absence of action by Congress, the debate over raising the minimum wage is taking place city by city and state by state.

Thursday's protests by fast food workers in major American cities, like the one in Atlanta, were billed as the largest yet. They are part of an ongoing effort to raise the pay of those who work in restaurants and other small businesses.

This past Monday, which was celebrated as Labor Day in the United States, President Barack Obama added his voice to the chorus.

“All across the country right now, there is a national movement going on made up of fast food workers organizing to lift wages so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity," he said. "There is no denying a simple truth: America deserves a raise."

The national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

But the minimum wage is higher in some cities and states, such as California, where workers earn at least $9 an hour. The city of Seattle has the highest minimum, at $15 an hour, which the protesters want to peg as a national rate.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to raise his city's lowest wage to $13.25 an hour within three years. He also spoke to workers on Labor Day.

“It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages," said Garcetti. "So today we agree is is time to 'raise the wage L.A.'”

U.S. Small Business Administration chief Maria Contreras-Sweet says there is opposition in Congress to any raise. She spoke Wednesday with VOA after addressing the civic group Town Hall Los Angeles.

“The president announced a 10-10, meaning $10.10 minimum wage, but we understand that throughout the country, there are different economic situations and standards," she said. "And because Congress is not acting, so many mayors and states are taking their own action."

Many small business owners are on the other side of the issue. Freeman Ho owns an auto repair shop near Los Angeles and has mixed feelings about raising the pay of his workers.

“If the labor rate, labor charge is up, we have to multiply more charging to the customer," he said.

But Ho says workers need more than the current minimum to support their families.

“So at least buying food or the other things, it will give them more chances, I mean purchase power," he said.

Many Americans work long hours for little pay, says Rusty Hicks of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

“And if you work full time, you work 40 hours a week, you should be able to support yourself, support your family, and contribute to your community," he said.

Business groups and many Republicans in Congress say raising the minimum wage will force employers to reduce their work force and hurt those at the bottom of the pay scale.

Supporters of pay hikes counter that a rise in the minimum wage will boost the U.S. economy and give needed help to the nation's most vulnerable workers.