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Senate panel hears training wage bill

Opponents call measure attack on minimum pay

Rachel La Corte Associated Press

OLYMPIA – Washington state has the highest state minimum wage in the nation, but a new bill being considered by lawmakers would allow some employers to pay a lower “training wage” to new employees for a certain period of time.

The measure heard before the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee on Wednesday would establish a special training certificate for employers with fewer than 50 employees. The certificate would allow them to pay new employees 75 percent of the minimum wage during a training period to last no longer than 680 hours. Washington state’s minimum wage increased by 15 cents this month to $9.19 per hour.

Employers would only be able to use the certificate once per employee, and training wages could not be used on more than 10 percent of the employer’s workforce.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, a Republican from Moses Lake who is chairwoman of the committee. A companion bill in the House had a public hearing on Tuesday.

Opponents of the measure said it would hurt low-wage employees.

“Workers are still falling behind,” said Stefan Moritz, of Unite Here Local 8, a union representing hotel workers and restaurant workers.

Moritz said he believed the bill was “an opening bid to an attack on the minimum wage.”

“Full-time workers in our industry are working hard every day to put food on the table and they barely stay above the poverty line,” Moritz told lawmakers.

Holmquist Newbry said she’s not trying to circumvent the minimum wage law, but said that employers need some flexibility in order to hire younger employees that they otherwise might not consider.

“It’s another additional tool to our employers to put the time and effort into hiring,” she said after the hearing.

Currently, exceptions to the minimum wage law already exist with employers being able to pay less than the minimum wage to certain groups, like student workers at schools that they attend, and individuals impaired by age or physical or mental disability or injury. State law also allows a training wage for 85 percent of minimum wage for 14- and 15-year-olds.

Many states, including Idaho, follow the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, either because they’ve tied their minimum wage to that threshold or because the state-enacted minimum is lower than that.

Washington voters approved a process in 1998 to automatically increase the minimum wage to compensate for inflation.

Oregon has the next highest state minimum wage at $8.95 per hour.

San Francisco has set the highest local minimum wage, with workers there making at least $10.55 an hour starting this year. The minimum wage in Santa Fe, N.M. rises to $10.51 on March 1.

Julia Clark, with the Washington Restaurant Association, told the committee Wednesday that her organization supports the measure because it will help restaurants hire more teens and train them.

“Our industry is far from booming,” she said, noting that more than 80 percent of restaurants that belong to the organization employ fewer than 50 people. “This will help our restaurants improve their chances of success.”

Rep. Mike Sells, chairman of the House Labor & Workforce Development Committee, said he didn’t see the bills, in their current form, passing out of his committee.

“You’re asking us to lower some people’s wages,” he said. “I don’t think members are going to be hot to do that.”

Holmquist Newbry said that she’s confident that her bill will pass out of her committee, and that if it is approved by the whole Senate, she’s willing to work with the House on the issue.

“If there’s other changes or revisions that would still ensure this is a useful tool for employers, I’d be open to listening and amending to make folks in the House more comfortable,” she said.

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