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Strikers stir wage debate, take home their $7.25

Friday, 13 Dec 2013 | 6:00 AM ET
John White
John Makely | NBC News
John White

The protests have certainly been grabbing attention: "Fast-food workers strike, protest for higher pay," screams one national newspaper's headline. "Public backs $10.10 minimum wage, not $15," states another.

For many minimum wage workers, however, the fatter paychecks probably haven't materialized yet.

Experts say that while the nationwide effort to raise awareness about how tough it is to live on $7.25 an hour has resulted in some state and local increases, a nationwide push to eventually increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour appears to be facing significant Republican opposition.

"People feel like there's probably limited likelihood of passage in the House of Representatives," said Jack Temple, policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project, which has advocated higher pay for low-wage workers.

Advocates such as Temple argue that what's happened is still significant.

Temple said five states—California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York—enacted minimum wage increases this year, and some cities are pushing for similar hikes.

The Seattle suburb of SeaTac has drawn national attention after voters passed a measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for certain workers, despite strong objections from area businesses. But the effort faces a legal challenge.

Many more states are expected to take up similar fights next year, and advocates expect it to be a significant issue in the midterm elections next November.

"It's easy, sometimes, for us to get discouraged when you see one or two states nudging the minimum wage up by a little bit here and a little bit there, but it does add up to something," said Doug Hall, director of the Economic Analysis and Research Network for the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute. "There's a sense of momentum."

(Read more: Here's who moves up the economic ladder)

Arindrajit Dube, an associate professor economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who studies minimum wage effects, said it's historically significant for fast-food workers and other low-wage employees to protest publicly.

"Where that leads to, I do not know," he said. "But in the meantime, we should recognize that these are different patterns than we have seen in the past."

Still, experts say, there are many states with more conservative legislatures where minimum wage workers are not likely to get a pay increase without a federal mandate. The federal minimum wage was last raised in 2009, to $7.25 an hour.

That has left many low-wage workers watching the battle from the sidelines. Though they're interested in the outcome, it doesn't affect their day-to-day lives yet.

(Read more: For women, asking for a raise can backfire)

Crystal Dupont and John White are two workers profiled by NBC News last March as part of the launch of our In Plain Sight project.

As 2013 comes to a close, NBC News asked White and Dupont to tell us how things are going for them now. Their responses have been edited for space and clarity.

John White: Living below my means, and grateful to God

In the last six months, things have improved for me. I still work at the same pizza restaurant, but the difference is that I'm getting more hours now.

Crystal Dupont
David Friedman | NBC News
Crystal Dupont

As you recall, I was only getting, on average, 7½ hours for the entire week. Now I'm getting close to 30 hours a week, and that helps me get more tips and certainly a healthier paycheck.

Other things have picked up for me. Throughout the summer I would spend a day down at my church mowing the lawn for them. Because of how the church has helped me in the last two-plus years with their benevolence ministry, I really feel good to give back by way of my time and service. Since working more hours, I don't have the same free time to volunteer, and besides, the mowing season is over.

Back in November, I also received my first deposit from Social Security. What a difference it's made for me. Just in that time after I received it, I needed two new tires for my Jeep. Instead of having to rely on my church helping me out, I was able to take care of them myself.

Along with that, I am now once again able to attend to paying all my own bills (without having to ask for help).

Just because I now will receive a monthly deposit from SSI doesn't mean that I'm going to stop working. Having both sources of income has and will help give freedom back to me, as I had once before in my life, to be able to manage my money and breathe more of a sigh of relief from being "broke" all the time.

(Read more: Many fast-food workers living in poverty: Report)

I find it interesting how there are all these threats of workers striking because they want to be paid $15 per hour. I certainly feel for them (because I was in that same position) but the $15, I think, is expecting too much. Something that would be more realistic would be $8.50 to $9, but that's not for me to say.

As for me, I have learned to spend "below my means," and I feel much more content in life and am only grateful that God saw me through it all.

Crystal Dupont: Out of work, but working hard at school

I am no longer working that minimum wage job at home. Shortly after the story ran, my hours dropped and I was let go.

I did find a part-time customer service job over the summer, but the employer refused to work with my schedule for the fall semester. It paid $10 an hour but with no benefits of any kind, and the hours were very inconvenient.

I am currently still enrolled in college. I took four classes this semester and I am doing excellent. My mother is doing fine.

I am still working hard toward school to achieve my degree in hopes of change. I am expected to graduate in May 2015.

I have four finals coming up, and I know I'll pass. Next semester I will be taking five classes and searching for temporary, full-time employment to fund my needs for classes and at home.

I am currently not working. Financially, to get by, over the summer I overpaid my bills. I still have some financial aid money that I am using, and I also have a little of my mom's support, along with my significant other. But he can only do so much, so I don't depend on him too often.

—By CNBC's Allison Linn. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn and Google or send her an email.

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