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Plans to lower Washington’s minimum wage could be difficult sell

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 5, 2017, 2:04 p.m.

OLYMPIA – Efforts to change Washington’s higher minimum wage approved by voters last November face a tough road in the Legislature.

But that didn’t keep Sen. Mike Baumgartner from proposing lower wages for teens, for nonprofit workers, and for anyone outside of King County.

At a hearing Thursday, the Spokane Republican argued it wouldn’t be unprecedented for both chambers to muster the two-thirds necessary to change an initiative just months after it passed. It’s a difficult sell, but lawmakers did it a few years ago when faced with a tight budget and an expensive mandate from voters to reduce class sizes in public schools.

“Real people are losing jobs because of this initiative,” he told the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee.

But opponents countered that workers are starting to earn enough money to support themselves and their families with the higher wages mandated by I-1433. Senate Bill 5530, which would delay the minimum wage hikes for two years in all Washington counties except King County, would cover most of the state’s minimum wage workers, said Misha Werschkul, of the liberal Washington State Budget and Policy Center.

That’s more than 500,000 workers statewide, and more than 50,000 in Spokane County, she said.

Some lawmakers and other opponents pointed out that another proposal, Senate Bill 5532, which would allow nonprofit organizations to pay a lower minimum wage, would include most of the state’s large hospitals, which are nonprofits with thousands of employees.

That’s not the intent, Baumgartner said. He’s interested in helping small nonprofits like Spokane’s Union Gospel Mission, where officials told him last year they’d have to cut back on services for alcohol and drug abuse treatment because of the additional wage costs.

But Liz Mills, of the Seattle YWCA, said nonprofits shouldn’t be exempt from the law: “They need to pay their employees a fair wage like everyone else.”

A third proposal, Senate Bill 5541, would allow employers to pay workers younger than 18 a lower wage. It was supported by lobbyists for the hospitality and retail industries, along with the Association of Washington Business. Employers are more likely to hire older workers if they have to pay everyone the same beginning wage, and teens won’t learn basic job skills, they said.

Or, they might decide it’s cheaper to buy robots than hire teen workers, said Erin Shannon, of the conservative Washington Policy Center.

But Nathan Rodke, of the liberal Washington Community Active Network, said some teen workers support themselves and their families, and allowing employers to pay them less could put older workers at a disadvantage when hiring decisions are made.

Baumgartner has introduced bills in the past to lower the minimum wage without much success. As chairman of the committee with a majority of his fellow Republicans, he might be able to move them to the full Senate. After that, they’d need significant support from Democrats in the Senate and House to get the two-thirds majorities needed to change an initiative so quickly, and overcome a possible veto from Gov. Jay Inslee, to become law.



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