OLYMPIA – To gauge the divide between the two chambers in this session, one need look no further than proposals on the minimum wage.
Currently the highest for any state at $9.47 an hour, the Republican-controlled Washington Senate could cut it, at least for teens in summer jobs or new workers in training. The Democratic-controlled House could raise it for all workers, incrementally to $12 an hour by 2019.
On Monday, the proposed bump in the minimum wage got its second hearing in the House, where supporters flooded the Appropriations Committee room with requests to approve what Rep. Jessyn Farrell, the bill’s sponsor, called “a modest step in the right direction.”
A person working 40 hours a week for a full year can’t afford housing, food and medical care for a family, said Farrell, D-Seattle. “You should be able to get by. You should be able to pay your way.”
Progressive organizations like the Washington State Budget and Policy Center agreed. Lori Pfingst, that group’s research and policy director, said a higher minimum wage would boost the economy, because those workers would spend it quickly for necessities.
But it would hurt businesses, particularly in the food and retail industries, representatives of those groups countered. It would have a ripple effect on all workers, as supervisors would expect higher wages to keep pace, said Bob Battles of the Association of Washington Business.
“It’s going to increase the cost of doing business in the state of Washington,” Battles warned.
Such arguments, which may be as old as the concept of the minimum wage itself, got an airing in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee earlier this month, but on opposite sides of two bills to lower the minimum wage for teens. Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, wants to allow businesses to pay some teens in summer jobs the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, or to pay starting workers 85 percent of the state minimum wage during a training period.
“I can see where some people think that this is taking advantage of teenagers. It really is not,” he said.
Business organizations argued that teens weren’t worth the full minimum wages for their first jobs because too many come to work without basic skills, such as showing up on time, dressing properly or being able to make change.
Employment rates for teens have dropped in the last 25 years, said Marilyn Watkins, of the Economic Opportunity Institute. But that’s partly a result of more teens being in school longer, she said, and not tied to the minimum wage. While comparisons for teen workers aren’t readily available, the five states with the highest unemployment rates in the next group up, 20-24, have the federal minimum wage, she said.
Baumgartner’s bills came out of Senate Commerce and Labor, a committee where he’s the chairman. Four Republicans voted “yes” and the three Democrats “no.” It was sent to the full Senate for possible floor debate.
Farrell’s increase to the minimum wage came out of the House Labor Committee, where Democrats hold the edge, on a similar tally. It had to make a detour to the Appropriations Committee because of costs to the state budget for state employees making the minimum wage, but also has a good chance to move to a vote in the full House.
The real test will be if both proposals pass their respective first chambers, and head to less friendly majorities on the other side.
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