As much as I support increasing the minimum wage, the initiative filed by "Washington unions" on January 11th, will fix the minimum wage at an intolerable level, doing nothing to lift workers out of more slave labor. By fixing the wage at $13.50, well-meaning citizens do a disservice to the working poor by not being truthful to the populace about the level of wages that would actually provide sufficient support to workers and their families. Ironically, the measure's focus on $13,50 would not even come into effect until 2020, at which time the cost of living will have increased further, leaving the poor even more behind. In the meantime, we taxpayers will continue to subsidize the profits of those who employ minimum wage workers through the taxes we pay that go to food stamps and other programs supporting those in poverty. Business owners walk away with profits that are actually made up of cash we effectively donate to them through these support programs, cash they do not have to pay in wages but retain as profits.
I wrote about the problem with the minimum wage last year in my column "$15/hr Minimum Wage - Seriously?". In that article I presented an argument that only by going to a minimum wage that reaches or exceeds $21 per hour could minimum wage workers possibly make a living wage, one comparable to a minimum wage worker's pay in 1968. However, there is a double bind. Consider this from a recent article in the Guardian.
"Last year the Illinois Policy Institute released research showing that weaning people off welfare is almost impossible with the country’s poverty wage structure. A single parent of two children earning $12 an hour – the current federal minimum wage is only $7.25 per hour (or $2.13 per hour for tipped employees in certain states) – and supplementing her income with food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap) would need a raise of over 300%, to $38 an hour, to draw her out of poverty. The problem with our current system of economic mobility is that, if she accepts a raise to $18 per hour, she’ll become financially ineligible for Snap and lose one-third of her total income and benefits. So like any rational person, she might choose to stay at a low-wage job: being poor is better than being really poor."
This current initiative also includes language that would require employers to provide one hour of earned sick leave for every 40 hours worked. That is 52 hours (6.5 days) per year for a full-time minimum wage worker - not a whole lot. Any part-time worker would receive less accordingly and would know that not much has changed. The Bellingham City Council briefly flirted with a similar measure late last year with the predictable cries of doom from the business community whose knee-jerk reactions to such proposals become tiresome. On 7 Dec 2015 the council passed a resolution to urge the state legislature to take up the issue lest all Bellingham businesses flee to Ferndale in protest of a local sick leave measure. Unfortunately, the proponents of this state-wide initiative are courting a legal battle for possibly introducing two issues on a ballot measure, minimum wage and mandatory sick leave. Not a good idea.
Voters are then left with a conundrum: vote for the initiative to lock minimum wage workers into slightly higher slave wages, or vote against it because it does not do nearly enough to solve the problem of earning a living wage. Damned if you do...damned if you don't.