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Wed., Feb. 5, 2014, 5:50 p.m.

Min wage wars: Up for all or down for teens?

OLYMPIA – The state’s minimum wage would go up for some workers and down for others under proposals moving through the Legislature this week.

It would go up to $12 an hour by 2017 for all hourly workers under a proposal approved Wednesday by the Democratic-controlled House Labor and Work Force Development Committee. It would be at least $15 an hour for school employees under a separate proposal the committee passed.

It would go down to as low as $7.25 an hour for teen-agers under a proposal approved by the Republican-controlled Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. . . 

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. . . Washington’s minimum wage, currently at $9.32 an hour and adjusted every year for inflation because of a voter-passed initiative, is the highest minimum wage in the country. But that doesn’t keep it out of the political debate over income inequality, and minimum wage is getting maximum exposure this winter in the state.

Voters in SeaTac raised the minimum in their city to $15 an hour – what some call a livable wage – in last November’s election, although the courts have scaled back where that pay scale must be applied. Seattle’s new mayor, former state Sen. Ed Murray, has called for a similar bump to the minimum wage in that city. Gov. Jay Inslee, in his state of the state address, called for an unspecified increase – somewhere between $1.50 and $2.50.

House Democrats were happy to quantify the bump with HB 2672, which would raise it to $10 next Jan. 1, $11 a year later and $12 on Jan. 1, 2017.

“This is not a living wage, it’s a survival wage,” Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Olympia, said. Statistics show most workers receiving the minimum wage are adults, and the average age is 35, he said, and the state owes them a floor above $9.32 an hour.

But Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, called the higher minimum wage “legislative cotton candy” that won’t solve the nation’s serious economic problems like income inequality.

“This bill does not qualify as basic common sense,” said Manweller, a professor of political science at Central Washington University. “If you believe you can raise the minimum wage and have no job loss . . . why not a $20 an hour minimum wage? Why not $30?”

“No one has said it will solve income inequality,” countered Committee Chairman Mike Sells, D-Everett. “It will raise some people out of poverty.”

The committee passed that proposal, and another to set a minimum of $15 per hour for all school employees, on partisan 5-4 votes. That bill comes with a price tag of $54 million and Manweller pointed out the state wasn’t promising to give local school districts the money to cover it. Sells agreed it was something the state must pay for, but said the committee was just setting the policy, and leaving it to the Appropriations Committee to come up with the money.

The Senate meanwhile, moved forward a proposal to lower the minimum wage for teenagers to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour between June 1 and Aug. 31. Supporters said that would help combat high teen unemployment by allowing employers to pay them a “training wage” for temporary jobs.

Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma and a retired union business agent, warned employers could use the law to lower wages to 18- and 19-year-olds who are established workers: “We’re running against the current of opinion about the inadequacy of the minimum wage.”

Majority Republicans on the panel, however, voted to send it to the committee that schedules legislation for debate by the full Senate. 

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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