Right now the federal minimum wage stands at just $7.25, despite recent calls for a $15 minimum wage. Cities and states can mandate their own minimum wage, so long as it is not below the federal minimum.

The top five large U.S. cities with the highest minimum wage, as of 2019, are San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Chicago, Oakland and Washington, D.C. Workers in some of these cities have to wait a few years for the new minimum wage laws to be implemented fully. Additionally, states such as California and Connecticut have passed bills that will eventually put all cities in their jurisdiction at $15 or more per hour. 

Key Takeaways

  • The minimum wage is the legal lowest amount an employer can pay an hourly worker.
  • The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for more than a decade now, but there has been recent efforts to raise it to $15 per hour.
  • Several cities have their own minimum wages which exceed the federal level, some of the most important of which we list here.

The Push for Higher Minimum Wages

Prior to the early 2010s, few states and municipalities had minimum wages significantly higher than the federal minimum wage. This changed when minimum wage workers, particularly in these cities, coalesced to spread awareness about their plight. Since its peak in 1968, the minimum wage relative to inflation and cost of living has fallen steadily. Especially in expensive cities, such as Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, it is mathematically impossible, even working full-time, to support oneself, much less a family, on a minimum wage job.

These awareness campaigns were highly successful, drawing a groundswell of support from high-profile activists who have since successfully pushed local governments in several large cities to mandate higher minimum wages that enable workers to be self-sufficient.

1. Seattle: $15.45 Per Hour, Implemented Fully by 2021

In June 2014, Seattle made history when its city council signed into a law a mandate to raise the minimum wage for all workers in the city to $15 per hour. The city became the first in the United States with a $15 minimum wage and, at that point, no other city had a minimum wage that was even close.

The minimum wage has since been increased even higher, with phases in beginning in 2018 abut does not affect all workers citywide until 2021. As of 2020, large businesses pay $16.39 per hour in 2020 and small businesses pay $15.75 per hour.

2. San Francisco: $15 Per Hour, Implemented Fully in 2018

While Seattle was technically the first U.S. city to pass a $15 per hour minimum wage into law, San Francisco's similar law, approved by voters in 2014, went into effect sooner. The city's higher minimum wage is was implemented fully by 2018. This gave an immediate wage increase to 142,000 workers, or 23% of the city's workforce.

3. New York City: $15.00 per Hour, Implemented Fully in 2019.

Following the lead of Seattle and San Francisco, New York City enacted a city-wide $15 minimum wage beginning on January 1, 2019. While this has been seen as a great achievement for one of America's largest and most important cities, the cost of living also remains staggeringly high - so that $15/hr in Manhattan just isn't as great for minimum wage workers as it might sound.

4. Washington, D.C.: $15.00 Per Hour, Implemented Fully by 2020

The nation's capital passed a law in 2013 raising the city's minimum wage to $11.50 per hour. The law took effect 2016, but was soon replaced by fresh legislation that mandated an even higher minimum wage of $15.00 an hour as of July of 2020.

5. Chicago: $13 Per Hour, Implemented Fully in 2019

Following the lead of Seattle and San Francisco, Chicago's city government passed a substantial minimum wage hike to $13 per hour in December 2014. While this hourly rate does not match that of its West Coast peers, it is worth noting that Chicago is a less expensive place to live than Seattle or San Francisco or East Coast NYC.

The increases to Chicago's minimum wage began in 2015 with an increase to $10 per hour. Annual increases brought it to $13 per hour in 2019. Each year thereafter a cost of living increase will be implemented.