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Wisconsin residents push for an increase in minimum wage

MADISON — For 26-year-old Olivia McKnight, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would transform her life.

As a full-time Popeyes employee in Milwaukee, McKnight makes $10 an hour. This isn’t nearly enough to support herself and her three children. She also works a second job. The long work hours have forced her to miss out on time spent with her children, including holidays and key life moments.

For 29-year-old James Rudd, who earns more than $15 an hour now, he is finally able to pay for the things he needs. And he now fights for all workers in Wisconsin to reach at least $15 an hour.

In contrast with McKnight, Rudd’s maintenance job at AT&T’s Milwaukee office cleaning floors and changing light bulbs has made his life easier. He can afford health insurance, bus fare and to keep current on his bills — all of which were out of reach when he earned $7.25 or $8 an hour.

That’s where McKnight is now.

“I try to provide for my family day to day, month to month, paying rent, paying electric, lights, and trying to find babysitters,” she said. “It’s definitely hard, it takes the majority of my time away, and it’s like I’m almost working for pennies.”

Roughly 1 million hourly workers nationwide earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour or less. Like others fed up with low earnings, McKnight recently joined the Fight for $15, a global political movement working to increase the minimum wage for all underpaid workers.

In Wisconsin, where the racial wealth and income gaps are some of the greatest in the nation, many feel raising the minimum is long overdue. According to a 2019 Marquette Law School Poll, 55% of Wisconsinites support raising the minimum wage, while 39% oppose it. And Black women like McKnight are among those who would benefit the most from it.

Black and Hispanic women are more than twice as likely as white men to make less than $15 per hour, according to calculations by The Washington Post using federal jobs data. About 46% of Hispanic women and 39% of Black women earn less than $15 an hour, while only 18% of white and Asian men earn less than $15 per hour. In Wisconsin, an estimated 43.7% of residents earn less than $15 an hour.

Because of grassroots movements like the Fight for $15 and growing political support, eight states and the District of Columbia have already passed legislation to raise the wage to $15 an hour, most recently Florida, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

But not Wisconsin. It is among 21 states whose minimum wage matches the federal level of $7.25 an hour. In 10 other states, the minimum is higher but still under $10, the UC Berkeley Labor Center reports.

Legislators, activists and community members have organized, lobbied and proposed changes to the federal and state-level wages for years, well before Democrats tried unsuccessfully to include a federal $15 minimum wage in the pandemic relief package passed in February 2021. `

In January, Democrats reintroduced the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 and end pay below-the-minimum wage for tipped workers. Under the bill, the minimum wage would increase immediately to $9.50 an hour, then to $11 per hour next year, $12.50 in 2023, $14 in 2024 and then $15 in 2025. A similar bill was introduced in 2019 but never cleared the GOP-controlled Senate.

The main reason minimum wage bills have stalled: Opponents argue that raising it would force many businesses to close or cut their workforces, resulting in fewer jobs.

A recent Congressional Budget Office report estimated that implementing a nationwide minimum of $15 an hour would lift nearly 1 million people out of poverty — but employment would be reduced by 1.4 million workers. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a powerful business lobby, argues raising the minimum wage would reduce opportunities for entry-level workers by making it more expensive for companies to hire them.

Low wages have long been a problem for workers of color in Wisconsin. Black median household income in Milwaukee has fallen by almost 30% since 1979. In fact, the Black median household income of $29,655 is the lowest among the top 50 U.S. metropolitan areas, and it is only 42% of white median household income, which in 2018 was $70,561. That’s according to a 2020 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development, which controlled for cost of living while comparing metropolitan areas.

“I think that’s a profound finding,” said Marc Levine, co-founder of the center who led the study. “It tells us a lot about not only our history, but about what’s happening today in Milwaukee and how little progress it has made.”

Levine’s recent research focuses on Black communities and how they fare in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas on issues including housing segregation, incarceration, poverty and income. On nearly every measure, Milwaukee comes out at or near the bottom. Wisconsin’s largest city, he said, “represents the archetype of modern-day metropolitan racial apartheid and inequality.”

Differences in educational achievement do not account for the disparities in income. According to Levine’s report, a white high school dropout is over twice as likely to be employed in Milwaukee than a Black high school dropout. In fact, white high school dropouts have a higher employment rate than Black workers who have graduated from high school.

“So when we talk about raising the minimum wage and the Fight for 15, you can see how important that is for Black Milwaukee given the very low wages that are earned by Black males,” Levine told Wisconsin Watch. “My estimate is that almost 40 to 45% of Black workers in Milwaukee would benefit from raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.”

For Wisconsin state Sen. Melissa Agard, the issue of raising the minimum wage is a moral one. Far too many people in the state who are working 40 hours a week — and who are disproportionately people of color — are still unable to take care of themselves and their families with dignity, she said.

On June 17, Agard announced she would reintroduce legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 in Wisconsin. She said it is “embarrassing” and “shameful” that the minimum hourly wage in the state has been frozen at $7.25 since 2009.

Many minimum-wage workers are forced to rely on public assistance programs, which cost the state billions. Addressing income inequality, in part by raising the minimum wage, could actually save the state money in respect to government-funded assistance programs because people would be able to better support themselves and their families, Agard said.

“Increased wages mean less people (are) reliant on government assistance for food, health care and other essentials,” she said. “In the richest country on the planet, no one should work full time and live in poverty.”

The UC Berkeley Labor Center found that 45% of workers in Wisconsin who would receive a pay boost if the Raise the Wage Act were passed are currently enrolled in one or more public assistance programs, including Medicaid, FoodShare and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Those working class employees are supported by an estimated $2.4 billion in public assistance programs in Wisconsin, the Labor Center estimated.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is a major voice of opposition to raising the minimum wage. The group argues that the biggest issue facing employers is a lack of skilled workers, and that the state should focus on training workers and incentivizing young professionals and college graduates to remain in the state.

The powerful business group did not respond to requests for comment. But in its legislative agenda, WMC stated that “raising the minimum wage will increase the cost of employing entry level workers, resulting in fewer job opportunities for workers entering the workforce who need to build skills and experience for their career.”

In addition, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the reduction in employment would increase spending for programs such as unemployment compensation. It also projected the costs of goods and services would increase, leading consumers to limit purchases and employers to reduce their employment.

After attempting to push through the bill in 2015 and 2017, the senator invited her Republican colleagues to join her. “Everyone deserves economic security,” she said.

Another Democratic-backed proposal in Wisconsin would ensure tipped employees currently making $2.13 or $2.33 an hour are compensated the same minimum wage as the rest of the workforce. Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee and Rep. Francesca Hong of Madison are sponsors of the measure.

“This wage is simply not enough,” Larson said at a March press conference introducing the legislation. “Up to 60% of tipped workers report that their tipped wages are too low to meet unemployment thresholds, and 46% rely on public assistance for basic survival.”

Larissa Joanna, a restaurant worker and single mother of two, said such a change would have helped her. She described getting paid the sub-minimum wage at her past restaurant jobs as dehumanizing. Having to rely so heavily on tips from customers to support her family made her stressed and worried.

For the past three years Joanna has worked as a manager at a Madison restaurant that starts every employee at the $7.25 minimum wage, plus tips. But she continues to fight for a higher wage for others because she knows what it’s like to work hard and yet not earn enough to support a family.

And she can never make up for lost time with her sons — one of whom has autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and speech delays — while she worked two jobs just to make ends meet.

“Unfortunately I had to spend that time away from my children, and if we were all making better pay it would be beneficial for everyone as a whole including our children,” Joanna said.

“Fifteen dollars is just a start. We want to take vacations. We want to be able to live the American dream,” Rudd said.

Vaccine losing steam? Fully vaccinated percentage under 50% statewide

When vaccine eligibility categories began opening incrementally last winter and spring, facilities were scrambling to meet demand for shots, with patients calling in droves to inquire about their turn for a dose.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

A vial of six COVID-19 vaccines is seen at Gundersen Health System in Onalaska.

Locally, appointment slots at Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System filled instantly, with vaccine supply from the state used up quickly and any extra vials welcomed.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

A syringe of COVID-19 vaccine is prepped at Gundersen Health System in Onalaska.

Over six months into the rollout, the scramble for shots has slowed — a good sign that many who want vaccines have been inoculated, but also worrisome, as fully vaccinated rates remain far below the level needed for herd immunity.

As of Thursday, 51.3% of Wisconsin residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine and 48.9% had completed the series, according to DHS. On a national level, per the CDC, those numbers are 56.3% and 48.8%, respectively. As of Friday, Minnesota was at 56.1% for one or both doses and 50.9% fully vaccinated.

One of the earlier eligibility groups, those 65 and older, leads the pack in full vaccination for Wisconsin at 83.5%, while those 12 to 15, who were approved for the Pfizer vaccine May 12, have the lowest rate at 31.7%, but have also had the least time to get shots.

Among individual counties in the La Crosse Tribune, Chippewa Herald and Winona Daily News coverage areas, the percentages for at least one dose as of Thursday are as follows:

  • La Crosse County: 57.2%
  • Chippewa County: 46.6%
  • Dunn County: 40.4%
  • Eau Claire County: 52.2%
  • Monroe County: 39.9%
  • Vernon County: 46%
  • Crawford County: 47.1%
  • Jackson County: 40.3%
  • Winona County: 52.7%
  • Houston County: 55.7%
  • Trempealeau County: 54.1%

Vaccination numbers continue to slow each week, with a high of nearly 430,000 doses in Wisconsin the week of April 4 and a steady decline to 38,016 the week of July 11. La Crosse County totals for the same weeks were 9,631 and 684. Daily doses statewide for the past two weeks average under 6,000 per day.

“We can do better,” says Dr. Robyn Borge of Gundersen Health System in La Crosse. While La Crosse County is among the areas with higher rates, others, including Dane and Bayfield counties, are in the 63% to 70% range.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Gundersen Health System medical assistant Jeannie Steele prepares COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday at the clinic in Onalaska.

Dunn, Monroe lag behind

Dunn County is among the readership counties with the lowest rate of vaccination, more 10% below the state average.

“I believe that there are a variety of reasons that people choose to remain unvaccinated,” says Kathryn Gallagher, director and health officer with the Dunn County Health Department. “While we have not conducted specific research into the specific ‘why’ behind that choice, we have heard from community partners that among our most undervaccinated demographic there is a perception that the personal risk of infection is acceptable to them.

“Just over one out of five Dunn County residents aged 18-24 are vaccinated. We are not working towards a specific rate, but want to ensure that everyone that chooses to get vaccinated has access to the free vaccination.”

Dr. Robyn Borge

Monroe County has a low rate overall — under 40% — but Sparta is above average with over 60%.

Kayleigh Day, the department’s community health educator and public information officer, says there are many possible factors in the low countywide vaccination level, including the number of rural residents. To make the shots more accessible, the department has been visiting “vaccine desert” areas. In addition, the vaccine being new is a source of hesitancy for some, she notes.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Gundersen Health System medical assistant Jeannie Steele pulls COVID-19 vaccine from cold storage Wednesday at the clinic in Onalaska.

A message on department’s website reads, “Monroe County Health Department wishes to acknowledge that many of our community members have undergone years of disinvestment, biased treatment, and lack of access. We empathize with those who have historically or personally experienced discriminatory treatment in our community.

“These experiences have reinforced cycles of trauma and created a lack of trust with government and with health care. The decision to receive a COVID-19 vaccination is a personal one. Our health department aims to educate the public about the safety and benefits of vaccination while also acknowledging these truths. We aim to build trust and the most equitable health outcomes.”

The text, Day says, is not in reference to specific incidents but about how “in the past some folks have had distrust in health entities and just acknowledging that and honoring that that can be a barrier for folks, but still encouraging folks to get vaccinated and creating as many opportunities for that as we can.”

With herd immunity requiring at least 70% of the population to be vaccinated, there is a long way to go on the national and state levels.

The circulation of variants, particularly the recent spike in Delta strain infections, is another hurdle, with low-vaccination states and counties seeing distressing rises in not only infections but hospitalizations. Delta is also less responsive to the vaccine, with studies showing between between an 8% to 30% decrease in protection against breakthrough infections, though the severity of those cases is lesser than among unvaccinated persons.

“If we do not get enough people vaccinated that we can really squash the spread of COVID, we could have a variant emerge that isn’t as sensitive to the vaccines,” DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said in a Tuesday post on the DHS Facebook page.

While Delta has not yet swarmed the state — there have been 120 confirmed cases as of July 21 — cases are trending up. On July 16, the seven-day average for new cases in Wisconsin was 149 per day, with a positive test rate of 1.8%. On July 21, those numbers were 221 and 2.8%. Nationally, the seven-day moving average for cases was 11,521 on June 21, and had risen to 37,673 on July 20.

Per the CDC, Delta is responsible for 83% of new sequences cases. National health officials last week noted over 97% of those being hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated, as are 99.5% of those dying from the virus. State hospitalizations have almost doubled in the past two weeks, Willems Van Dijk said Thursday in a DHS briefing.

Getting shots in arms

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Minnesota Department of Health, county health departments, area health care providers and drugstore pharmacies have worked diligently to make getting the vaccine as convenient, easy and efficient as possible.

Doses are free, but given that some may have to pay for transportation or child care in order to make their appointment, the national government has partnered with child care and rideshare providers to offer these services at largely no charge.

Area efforts to reach all demographics have included hosting vaccine tents at local events and entities, like the La Crosse Moon Tunes Concert Series kickoff in June, the Trempealeau County Fair, Snuffy’s Bar and area high schools; partnering with organizations like the Vang Council or Boys and Girls Club to reach underserved populations; and sending physicians to shelters and parks frequented by unsheltered persons or the residences of homebound individuals. UW-La Crosse was host of a state community vaccine clinic for several weeks.

The La Crosse County Health Department, “with wonderful volunteer support,” between February to June 2021 administered 5,556 doses through 73 vaccine clinics at 23 different locations. Sites included the La Crosse County Jail. Juvenile Detention Center, West Salem Fire Dept. 22, the YMCA Onalaska and the Salvation Army.

In other parts of the state, officials are exploring door to door vaccination, and in Milwaukee County 137 doses were given that way in around one week, per Wisconsin Public Radio.

Other states have incentivized. In Minnesota, the “Your shot to summer” initiative, which ran from late May to late June, made the first 100,000 state residents to be vaccinated during that time eligible for rewards like a state fishing license, Minnesota Zoo admission, Great Lakes Aquarium Pass, Northwoods League baseball tickets and more.

Winona County Health and Human Services has hosted vaccine tents at the Farmer’s Market, Winona County Fair, Steamboat Days, the Lake Park Drive in Music and Movie Series, and area recreation centers, community centers and high schools. The Minnesota Department of Health has a Vaccine Advocate toolkit for individuals to utilize social media to share facts and promote getting the shots, or spreading information about the state’s COVID-19 Community Mobile Vaccination Bus.

If the vaccine is accessible and free, why are so many eligible persons not inoculated? A sense of invincibility may be a factor for younger demographics, who are less likely to be hospitalized for or die from the virus. Vaccine distrust, incorrect messaging, politics, concerns about side effects or lack of confidence in the safety of the shots are other reasons.

Survey results show split

A Yahoo! News COVID-19 vaccination survey of 1,715 U.S. adults, taken July 13-15, found of those currently unvaccinated only 18% planned to get their shots, while 31% were unsure and 51% did not intend to be vaccinated. Of those who still wanted the vaccine, 41% identified as Democrats and 10% as Republicans, and males outnumbered females. Of note, many states and counties with low vaccination rates lean conservative, including Dunn, Monroe and Jackson counties.

The “most important reason for not getting vaccinated” was “I don’t trust the COVID-19 vaccines” at 45%, the survey found — chosen by 37% of Democrats and 51% of Republicans, respectively — and 12% said their top reason was not being worried about getting the virus.

Only 4% listed their number one reason as lack of easy access to the shot, and only 3% cited not being able to get time off work.

Broken down into reasons for vaccine distrust, 60% said the shots are “too new,” and 45% noted they don’t currently have full FDA approval — the shots are being used under Emergency Use Authorization. However, 55% said full approval would make no difference in their decision to be vaccinated.

Short-term side effects were a concern for 50% of respondents, and long term for 70%. Over half said they didn’t trust the government, and 45% don’t trust drug companies.

To the survey question, “What poses a greater risk to America?” 64% cited the virus, and 15% the vaccines. For their personal health, the percentages changed to 61% and 18%, respectively. The spread of the Delta variant has made 15% of unvaccinated persons more likely to get their shots, but a rise in hospitalizations and deaths among the unvaccinated would not change the decision of 58% and 57%, respectively, of respondents.

Some conservative government officials, including Sen. Ron Johnson, have pointed to rare cases of severe vaccination side effects as reasons to forgo the shots. Anti-vaccine organizations like Children’s Health Defense have grown louder over the course of the pandemic, with Dr. Elizabeth Mumper saying, “Vaccines, as they are currently produced, are not safe.” Of note, the organization’s head, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., was previously banned from Instagram “for repeatedly sharing debunked claims” about COVID and the vaccines.

A post from the conservative group America’s Frontline Doctors read, “45,000 confirmed dead from the COVID-19 shots within three days … and they’ve covered it up.” While proven wholly incorrect, it sparked fears among those already skeptical of the safety of the shots.

While headlines can be alarming, when put in context adverse reactions are miniscule. As of July 19, the CDC had confirmed 41 cases of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome and 674 cases of myocarditis or pericarditis related to the vaccines. There are 100 preliminary reports of Guillain-Barré syndrome.

In contrast, over 339.1 million vaccine doses have been administered. As of July 19, VAERS had received 6,207 reports of death among vaccinated individuals, equivalent to 0.0018%. A report is not confirmation the death is vaccine related.

“I would encourage people to read reputable sources, and to talk to their trusted provider,” Borge says. With local hospitals starting to implement vaccination at primary care departments, Borge hopes more will opt for shots. “It will be more convenient and they will be able to have that discussion with their clinician.”

‘They thought it was a hoax’

Willems Van Dijk says many who haven’t been vaccinated heard misinformation, and shared during the DHS briefing a viral post from Dr. Brytney Cobia, a hospitalist at Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama.

“A few days later when I call time of death, I hug their family members and I tell them the best way to honor their loved one is to go get vaccinated and encourage everyone they know to do the same. They cry. And they tell me they didn’t know,” the post reads. “They thought it was a hoax. They thought it was political. They thought because they had a certain blood type or a certain skin color they wouldn’t get as sick. They thought it was ‘just the flu.’

“But they were wrong. And they wish they could go back. But they can’t. So they thank me and they go get the vaccine. And I go back to my office, write their death note, and say a small prayer that this loss will save more lives.”

Willems Van Dijk reiterates: “There is a way out of this. ... We do that by getting vaccinated. By getting our children who are eligible vaccinated. By talking to our friends and our neighbors about the importance of getting vaccinated. Every COVID-19 death is now a preventable death.”

Wisconsin is looking for an 80% vaccination rate, Willems Van Dijk says, though “the best would be 100%.” Reaching that rate means getting the tween and teen demographics their shots, and, once approved, those under 12.

With most local schools following a nine-month calendar, only around six weeks remain for the middle, high school and college age sector to have their shots. With Pfizer and Moderna doses spaced three to four weeks apart, respectively, and another two weeks needed for full efficacy to kick in, time is limited to start the semester at peak protection.

“We certainly want to strive for higher vaccine rates. With the Delta variant we are seeing more on an impact on kids. Actually, 14% of cases are children, and up to about 3.6% of hospitalizations are kids,” says Borge. “There is some concern the Delta variant and future variants may pose more risk to our younger populations. We strongly recommend the vaccine for children 12 and up. The best way to keep our kids and our community safe is to get the COVID vaccine.”

Borge says, “What we’re finding with the kids is a lot of them have been eager to get the vaccine, and it has been the parent that is more cautious. Obviously they want what’s best for their kids, so they’re a little more cautious with their children than they were with themselves. I do want to provide reassure these vaccines have continued to be effective, including with the Delta variant.”

The Minnesota Department of Health advises regular testing for youth not yet eligible for vaccination, with Minnesota health commissioner Jan Malcolm stating, “With variants continuing to circulate, the pandemic is not over, especially if you or your children are not vaccinated yet. That means testing can still be a very important tool.”

Adds MDH assistant commissioner Dan Huff, “If your kids participate in activities where they may be exposed, or in settings with others outside your household, like day care or youth camps, they should get tested every two weeks.”

As of July 1, Winona Area Public Schools no longer require students, staff and visitors to wear masks while in school buildings. The La Crosse School District last Wednesday announced masking is also not required, though those under 12 may need to resume wearing face coverings if cases rise.

La Crosse Schools on Thursday sent out a letter advocating for vaccination among students 12 and over and staff, writing, “With summer half over and preparations for the beginning of the new school year well underway, we are confronted by the fact that concerns over COVID-19 will continue to affect decision making. The good news is that new guidance focuses on the need for students to be back in the classroom and area public school districts are committed to ensuring that this happens. ... However, the increasing case numbers of COVID-19 in the nation, state, and right here in La Crosse County, require us to consider which mitigation strategies may still be necessary for the start of the school year.

“It has become clear that the first, best mitigation strategy is vaccination. We are asking all eligible individuals to consider being vaccinated. Please speak to your doctor about the risks and benefits of the vaccine. Low or no community spread will allow schools to remain open with the fewest mitigation strategies necessary. Being vaccinated is very much a collective community effort to ensure students can fulfill their potential in our classrooms.”

Willems Van Dijk stresses there is plenty of vaccine available and many ways to get it — “We just need people to raise their hands.”

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UPDATE: Names of triple homicide victims released

The victims of a triple homicide have been positively identified, all of them males in their early 20s with ties to the La Crosse area.

The bodies of Peng Lor, Nemo Yang and Trevor J. Maloney were discovered shortly before 5 a.m. Friday at the entrance of Milestone Materials, Romskog Quarry, N6290 County Trunk M. Employees arriving at work made the discovery and made the emergency call.

Steve Rundio / STEVE RUNDIO, La Crosse Tribune 

County Hwy. M at Bergum Coulee Road was closed Friday as local law enforcement investigated a triple homicide in the area.

Lor and Yang were both 24 and without permanent addresses, but they frequently resided in and around the La Crosse area; the last known addresses of Maloney, 23, were in Sparta and Cashton, and he is also known to have frequently resided in the La Crosse area.

The next of kin for each victim has been notified.

Any relationship between the victims was not released at this time, and no suspects are in custody.

The La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department, Wisconsin Department of Justice, Wisconsin State Crime Lab, State Patrol, La Crosse County District Attorney’s office and La Crosse County medical examiner were all on the scene Friday and investigators worked during the night and on Saturday. Around 12 investigators were actively working on the case Saturday and following up on information about the whereabouts of the victims 24 hours prior to the discovery of the bodies.

La Crosse County Sheriff Jeff Wolf said Friday, “We believe at this time it was a targeted act. We do not know the reason. There were no vehicles left at the scene. It’s a very fluid case at the present time, it’s a very complicated crime scene.”

Residents in the area with any information about the crime, which is believed to have occurred Thursday night or early Friday morning, are asked to call Crime Stoppers or the non-emergency line, 608-785-5942. In particular, Wolf asked for security footage from nearby residences on County Road S and County Road M.

“We are getting a lot of information. It’s coming very fast,” Wolf said Friday. “We are following up on a number of leads.”

The Sheriff’s Department on Saturday afternoon expressed condolences to the families of the victims, stating, “Our team and the assisting agencies are working diligently in the pursuit of justice for your lost loved ones.”