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More States Raise Minimum Wage, But Debate Continues

Protesters march in New York City on Dec. 4 to demand an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. New York state's minimum wage rose to $8.75 on Wednesday.

The minimum wage goes up in 20 states Thursday, a day after the state of New York boosted its minimum. And throughout 2015, three more states, plus five major cities will be doing the same.

A majority of states now have a minimum wage higher than the federal government's, which is currently set at $7.25.

About half of the states increasing their minimum wages are doing so because of ballot measures or legislation that passed in 2014. The rest are doing so as part of automatic step increases.

This comes almost exactly a year after President Obama called for raising the federal minimum to $10.10 an hour. Congress hasn't acted on that. But by executive action, the president increased the base wage to $10.10 for federal contractors — a raise that also goes into effect Thursday.

Now, the state with the highest minimum wage is Washington state, at $9.47 an hour.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, says the states' moves could spur action on a national level.

"For the first time, we will have 29 states plus the District of Columbia with higher minimum wage rates than the federal rate," she says. "And we think that this kind of activity at the state level will increase the pressure on Congress to act to raise the federal minimum wage."

And Owens argues there is an economic advantage to raising the minimum.

"Roughly 3 million low-paid workers will get a wage increase," she says. "That will pump additional resources into the economies of those states."

Many employers in the affected industries disagree.

Scott DeFife, executive vice president of public policy for the National Restaurant Association, says in areas where the increases are big, it could have a chilling impact on hiring.

"If there is too much pressure on wages, there may be less of those jobs per establishment, and in certain areas of the country, you could see stagnating growth in the industry," he says.

Restaurants employ more than 13 million people, but DeFife says only 5 percent of them earn the minimum wage. He argues that with so many states raising their rates, it creates less momentum for a federal increase.

"People say, 'Oh, 20-30 states have done it.' And [I say], 'Great, that actually lessens the pressure on Congress.' "

The last time the federal minimum wage was increased was in 2009.

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