The minimum wage debate is heating up in America. Minimum wage workers have gathered in protest of low pay rates in states across the nation demanding that lawmakers give attention to the current economic crisis caused by minimum wage rates too low for day-to-day survival.

A number of states have paved the way for nationwide minimum wage increases, but a federal measure has yet to be signed into law. What rights do minimum wage workers have and how can they be made more effective?

The Plight of Minimum Wage Workers in America

All across the nation, minimum wage workers struggle to make ends meet. As the average costs of everyday necessities such as rent, food childcare and more steadily rise, the minimum wage stays frustratingly stagnant. In fact, it’s been five years since the last federal minimum wage increase. The current rate is $7.25 per hour.

Recent protests by minimum wage workers at McDonalds and other fast food chains revolve around demands for dramatic minimum wage increases. President Obama has called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from its current rate to $10.10 per hour. However, the request has met with significant resistance from Republicans who continue to block proposals for minimum wage increases.

According to White House reports, raising the minimum wage could help over 28 million American workers.

States Leading the Way of Minimum Wage Increases

States and some municipalities have the power to set minimum wage standards higher than the federal limit. For instance, Washington and Oregon, at $9.32 and $9.10, respectively, have the highest state rates in the nation. On June 2 of this year, the Seattle City Council raised its minimum wage to $15.00 per hour. That rate is currently the highest rate overall in America.

A number of states have minimum wage rates higher than federal levels. Today, 23 states and Washington, D.C. have rates higher than $7.25 per hour. Other states could follow suit. Around the nation 38 states introduced bills to raise the minimum wage, while 33 states at least considered raising the rate for workers within their borders.

The Rights of Minimum Wage Workers

Federal minimum wage provisions can be found in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). When the minimum wage is violated, workers have a right to file a claim with the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division against an employee. In such instances, employees could receive back wages for the money lost due to an errant employer’s behavior.

When happens when state minimum wage law differs from federal rates? It’s important to note that when state law and federal law differ, state law prevails such that the state mandated minimum wage trumps the federal rate.

Minimum Wage Workers and Employment Discrimination

Minimum wage workers also have other rights surrounding their income a well. The 1964 Civil Rights Act protects minimum wage workers from all forms of discrimination based on certain protected statuses. These include race, color, national origin, age, sex, religion and disability. The protection extends to all areas of the employment process – hiring, firing, promotions, and most importantly compensation.

Compensation discrimination based on any of the above protected categories arises when an employer pays one worker less than another based on membership in a protected class. When an employer is found liable for compensation discrimination, he could be fined for the amount of money the employee would have earned had he or she not experienced the discrimination.

It’s interesting to note that the issue of compensation discrimination could arise in reference to minimum wage workers. More than half of all minimum wage workers are women. An argument could be made that current minimum wage treats women unfairly since it has an adverse impact on incomes based on female status.

This type of discrimination is called disparate impact discrimination. Charges of disparate impact discrimination are usually handled by the Department of Justice.

Similar arguments have been made for other issues such as gay marriage rights and women’s healthcare. Both these issues were resolved with new legislation attempting to level the playing field for those adversely affected by laws which resulted in unequal treatment of certain classes of citizens.

Upholding Worker Rights Beyond Income

Though the current debate centers around the amount paid to minimum wage workers, many do not know that other rights besides those concerning wages can be violated every day. Minimum wage workers are particularly susceptible to employment right violations since job security can be low and low wage positions can offer fewer benefits to fall back on. However, minimum wage workers are entitled to all the rights and remedies of other workers despite their income status.

Here, Both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, noted above, and the Equal Pay Act could figure in. Title VII ensures that workers are protected while on the job from discrimination, discriminatory harassment and discriminatory retaliation based on membership in one or more of the protected categories, including sex.

The Equal Pay Act also protects female minimum wage workers. The Act ensures that women workers receive the same pay as their male counterparts who are doing similar work. Even female minimum wage workers must receive equal pay – meaning an employer could not legally raise the minimum wage for male workers while forcing female workers to remain at the old rates.

It’s extremely important for wage workers to know what rights they possess and gain the ability to recognize when these rights are violated.

Where Will the Minimum Wage Rights Movement Take Us?

Proponents of minimum wage increases insist the current rates are too low to support families struggling to meet the everyday needs and keep millions of American households well below poverty lines. However, others argue that a minimum wage increase could lead to unemployment. It remains to be seen whether Congress will heed the cry of protesters around the country and give heed to the push in the White House for a new and improved federal minimum wage.