Currently, the federal minimum wage stands at just $7.25 per hour, despite recent calls for a $15 minimum wage. The top five large U.S. cities with the highest minimum wage, as of 2020, are Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

Additionally, several states have passed bills that will eventually put all cities in their jurisdiction at $15 or more per hour. Workers in some of these cities will have to wait a few years for the new minimum wage laws to be implemented fully. For example, Florida residents voted in November 2020 to increase the state's minimum wage incrementally (beginning at $10 per hour on Sept. 30, 2021) until it reaches $15 per hour in September 2026.

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 have been recent efforts to raise it to $15 per hour.
  • Several cities have their own minimum wages that exceed the federal level.

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, came together to spread awareness about their plight. Since its peak in 1968, the minimum wage relative to inflation and cost of living has fallen steadily.

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.

It is mathematically impossible—especially in expensive cities—even working full-time, to support oneself, much less a family, on a minimum wage job. All five cities listed below are among the most expensive in the U.S., with residents of San Francisco having an approximately 25% lower standard of living in 2018 (in terms of purchasing power).

1. Seattle: $16.39 Per Hour

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. At that point, no other city had a minimum wage that was even close.

The minimum wage has since been increased more, a rise that began in 2018 but won't affect all workers citywide until 2021. As of 2020, large businesses pay $16.39 per hour and small businesses pay $15.75 per hour.

2. San Francisco: $16.07 Per Hour

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 was implemented fully by 2018. This gave an immediate wage increase to 142,000 workers; 23% of the city's workforce.

3. San Jose: $15.25 Per Hour

Two years before Seattle passed its minimum wage law, voters in San Jose approved the Minimum Wage Ordinance. It was originally set at $10 per hour. In order to keep up with inflation, the ordinance also established that the minimum wage would increase by an amount corresponding to the prior year's increase in the cost of living.

4. New York City: $15.00 Per Hour

Following the lead of Seattle and San Francisco, New York City enacted a citywide $15 minimum wage beginning on Jan. 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 per hour in Manhattan just isn't as great for minimum wage workers as it would be in other locations.

5. Washington, D.C.: $15.00 Per Hour

The nation's capital passed a law in 2013 raising the city's minimum wage to $11.50 per hour. The law took effect in 2016. It was soon replaced by fresh legislation that mandated an even higher minimum wage of $15 an hour, as of July 2020.