Minimum wages: Lower to fuel opportunity?

Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake Credit: John Stang

Should some minimum-wage workers earn more? Should some minimum-wage employees earn less than now required?

Those questions got batted back and forth at a Senate Commerce and Labor Committee hearing Wednesday on three bills. One would outlaw SeaTac, Seattle or any other cities' efforts to increase the minimum wages within their borders, and two would install teenager-oriented minimum wages that would be below Washington's current $9.32 an hour.

Those bills are:

  • A proposal by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, to forbid any city or county to increase its minimum wage above the state's minimum wage. House Democrats, in contrast, want to increase the state minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2017 — a proposal likely to die in the Republican-oriented House.
  • A proposal by Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake and the commerce committee's chairwoman, to create a teen training wage teens from 16 to 19 at either 85 percent of the state minimum wage or at the federal minimum wage, whichever is higher. Today, that would translate to $7.92 an hour rippling from the state wage. Only 10 percent of a company's work force could be teens eligible for a teen training wage.
  • A proposal by Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, that would enable an employer to pay 14- through 19-year-olds the federal minimum wage, rather than the state minimum wage, from June 1 to Aug. 31 each year. "We've got to get more kids in the labor force," he said.

The two teen wage bills were part of a larger group of job-growth bills that the House and Senate Republicans unveiled Wednesday. Besides the teen wage bills, the most significant legislation appears to be a bill by Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, that would restore tax breaks — which expired in 2010 — for manufacturers in Washington's 31 most rural counties. The reinstated tax break is supposed to mirror the $9.7 billion tax break that Boeing Co. obtained from Washington in November by threatening to send its 777X airliner production elsewhere.

"If we made such an effort to save the Goliath of the state, we should make the same effort for the little Davids in the state," Manweller said.

All these bills have a good chance of passing the Senate, which is controlled by the 24-Republican-two-Democrat Majority Coalition Caucus. But most, if not all, those bills will face a hostile reception in the Democrat-dominated House.

Reflecting the differences between the two chambers, the House on Wednesday passed, mostly along party lines, a bill that would require mandatory sick leave — similar to Seattle's 2011 law — for workers across the state. That bill will likely receive a chilly reception in the Senate. 

In the Senate, Wednesday's testimony on the three minimum wage bills split almost evenly.

The arguments on Braun's uniform minimum-wage bill were between a single spread-out firm's difficulties in dealing with multiple different minimum wages in adjacent towns versus the loss of a city's ability to abide by the wishes of its people. Linda Wilson, owner of a Vancouver cabinet making company that delivers around the state, said she can't see how a company like hers could keep track of what it has to pay if cities are enacting different minimum wages. Kathryn Campbell of SeaTac City Council said, "If people want to have local control over their work conditions, they should have that."

The pros and cons on the two teen wage bills were the same. Supporters pointed to high teen unemployment and businesses struggling to meet payrolls. Opponents argued that no link has been proven between lower teen minimum wages and economic health, plus the bills would penalize people for being young.

The bills "are discrimination toward teenagers and young people. They work for the same reasons that all workers do," said Nicole Grant of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Baumgartner argued that lower teen wages would encourage more businesses to hire them, saying, "We've got to get more kids in the labor force," he said.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

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