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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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WALeg Day 24: Spirited teen wage debate

OLYMPIA – Bosses could pay teen workers less in the summer or whenever they start a new job, under a pair of bills aired in a contentious Senate committee hearing Wednesday.

New employees between age 14 and 19 could be paid the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, instead of the state minimum of $9.47, between June and August under one proposal sponsored by Sen. Mike Baumgartner. Another proposal by the Spokane Republican would let new employees between 16 and 19 receive 85 percent of the state minimum, or about $8.05.

Lobbyists for restaurants, retailers, supermarkets and small businesses told the Labor and Commerce Committee their members can't afford to take a chance on untrained teen workers if they have to pay them the full minimum wages. Because of that, young workers aren’t learning basic job skills like showing up on time, dressing properly and making change, they said.

Baumgartner, the committee chairman, said a one-size-fits all minimum wage hurts teens, who have higher rates of unemployment, and may be a disadvantage for Spokane businesses just across the border from Idaho, where the federal minimum wage is in effect.

Democrats on the committee criticized the proposals, and argued that unemployment rates for young adults are higher in Idaho. Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, said the bills have no requirements to raise a teen's wages when they complete training and don’t take into account that some teens may be contributing to family income or paying for college. Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said it puts the state on the “slippery slope” of age discrimination.

Similar proposals passed the committee in the last session, but never came to the floor of the Senate. The committee will vote on the current proposals in the coming weeks, and if Wednesday’s hearing is any indication, they’ll pass on a partisan vote in a panel where Republicans have a one-vote majority.

That’s the way the committee split on several issues, including a law that would open to the public contract negotiations between the governor’s office and the state employees unions, and a resolution asking President Obama and Congress to intervene in the dispute between labor and management at major West Coast ports.

Conway argued contract negotiations are subject to fits and starts with breaks for discussions on each side: “It’s not unlike the Legislature. Would we want our caucuses open to public participation?”

Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, objected to a section of the resolution that laid the blame for port slowdowns on stalled labor negotiations when the no one from port management appeared at an early hearing to say that. Union officials who testified said the slowdown was a result of shifts being reduced and shortages of equipment to move cargo and out.

“We are inserting ourselves into a bipartisan arrangement where management and labor are trying to work out an agreement,” Hasegawa said.

But those proposals and several others involving changes to labor law were sent to the Senate on 4-3 votes.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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