Low-wage workers and advocates say they're hoping to convince lawmakers to raise the minimum wage from $8 an hour to $10.10.
| RELATED: Starbucks clears college degree path for workers
Starbucks is giving its baristas a shot at an online college degree, an unusual benefit in an industry where higher education is often out of reach for workers.
The coffee chain is partnering with Arizona State University to make an online undergraduate degree available at a steep discount to any of its 135,000 U.S. employees who work at least 20 hours a week.
The program underscores the predicament of many workers who earn low wages, don't have much job security and often hold down more than one job. It also highlights the stark disparities in advancement opportunities between the rich and poor, and how a traditional college education remains a near impossibility for so many.
At an event in New York City on Monday, CEO Howard Schultz told an audience of about 340 Starbucks workers and their guests that the issue was personal because he was the first in his family to attend college.
"I could care less about marketing. This is not about PR," he said of the cynicism he's already encountered about the program.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also appeared on stage to tell the crowd that education has become increasingly crucial to succeed, given the disappearance of blue-collar jobs that pay well. Duncan urged workers to show other companies why they should follow in Starbucks' footsteps.
"Think of the example you can set for the rest of the nation," Duncan said. "If you guys can do this well ... you're going to change the trajectory of the entire country."
Tuition and room and board has climbed over the years, reaching an average of $18,400 last year for local students at public schools, or $40,900 for private universities, according to the College Board. With prices rising, student loan debt has tripled since 2003 and is now the highest form of household debt after mortgages, according to the Federal Reserve Board of New York.
Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, said college has moved in a direction "where it's all about exclusion" and that public universities need a new approach to making education accessible. He shot down the notion that an online education is an easy way out.
Starbucks Corp., based in Seattle, said it doesn't know how many workers will apply for its prokgram or how much it will cost over time.
One Starbucks employee from Los Angeles, Michael Bojorquez Echeverria, said he works up to 75 hours a week, including at another job, and attends community college at no cost. But he plans to apply for the Starbucks program because he thinks it will offer greater financial security.
He said he will miss is the socializing that comes with attending school in person. "But hey, if they're going to be paying my fees, I can manage," he said.
Starbucks said workers will have the freedom to pick from 40 educational programs. And they won't be required to stay with the company in exchange for their education.
As with most matters involving financial aid, the terms of the Starbucks program are complicated and would vary depending on the worker's situation. For the freshman and sophomore years, students would pay a greatly reduced tuition after factoring in a scholarship from Starbucks and ASU and financial aid, such as Pell grants.
It would work in much the same way for the junior and senior years, except that Starbucks would reimburse any money that workers pay out of pocket.
That means employees who already have two years of college under their belts would be able to finish school at no cost.
Online tuition at ASU can vary but is about $10,000 a year. Most Starbucks workers would likely qualify for a Pell grant, which can be as high as $5,730 a year. Starbucks did not say how much money it is contributing to the scholarship it's providing with ASU.
Arizona State University's online program, which already has an enrollment of more than 10,000, stands to benefit from the students Starbucks will send its way.
There have been other efforts at offering low-wage workers education benefits. In 2010, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. started offering partial tuition grants for workers at American Public University, a for-profit, online school.
The New York state minimum is currently $8 an hour, and is to increase to $9 at the end of 2015.
Several other states, including California, Connecticut and Massachusetts, have recently approved minimum wage hikes of $10 or more. This legislative session comes to a close on Thursday.
Debate over the minimum wage is one of several pieces of legislation relating to the wage. Another would set the wage at $9 per hour at the end of 2014 and would tie future increases to inflation.
Business groups have argued that raising the wage or letting cities set their own would increase the costs on business owners, forcing them to raise prices or cut back on employee positions or hours.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said Monday that he wants lawmakers to vote to raise the wage before ending their legislation session.
The lawmakers are also scrambling to approve a medical marijuana proposal before lawmakers adjourn at the end of the week.
Organizers have been pushing for higher wages for fast-food workers for more than a year.
The actions are part of an ongoing campaign by union organizers to build public support for a higher wages.
The Service Employees International Union has been providing financial and organizational support for the push, which began in late 2012.
A series of protests since then calling for pay of $15 an hour has captured national media attention and served as a backdrop for President Barack Obama’s push to raise the federal minimum wage.
IN WASHINGTON...... Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez teamed up with the top Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, to meet Monday with kitchen workers at a local restaurant and deliver a lunchtime plea for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10.
The increase has been a top second-term political priority for President Barack Obama and his allies in Congress. Obama himself pushed the measure again Saturday in his weekly address.
However, it is stalled in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
Asked if he sees any recent movement among Republicans on the minimum wage, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said, "The Republicans are talking to us all the time about whether or not this is going to come up. I appreciate that the GOP leadership has a very hard line against ... But I think before the election, we have a very good chance of passing this."
Miller, who is a longtime confidant of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, is not seeking re-election this year after four decades in Congress.
"There are a lot of good moving pieces here around this debate," he said.
The higher wage hasn't passed the Democratic controlled Senate or the GOP-run House. The Senate considered it, but then put it aside. House Democratic leaders have made several pleas to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to schedule a vote.
The Labor Department proposed a rule last week to raise the minimum wage for employees of all federal contractors by Jan. 1, 2015, fleshing out an executive order Obama signed in February.
There will be a 30-day period for interested parties to submit comments. The department will review the comments and issue a final rule by Oct. 1.
All the full-time workers at the restaurant visited by Perez and Miller make more than the minimum wage. Co-owners of "Sweetgreen," in the Dupont Circle section of the nation's capital, said workers generally start out at $8.50 an hour for the first couple of weeks during training and then they go to an annual salary.
Asked why they decided to go to a business where everybody makes well over the federal minimum wage, Perez said the restaurant demonstrates that small businesses can still pay higher-than-minimum wages and still "do good and do well. You don't have to make a profit on the backs of your workers."
"I think employees feel great to know that we support them and want them to have a comfortable life. Paying them a fair wage is one part of that," said Jonathan Neman, who is co-owner of the business along with Nicolas Jammet. "If at first you don't succeed, you keep trying.