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Minimum wage proposals on rise

The New Jersey measure also would take politicians out of future hourly wage increases by including automatic annual adjustments for inflation, known as “indexing.”

Obama endorsed indexing when he pressed for a $9 federal minimum wage in his State of the Union address: “Here’s an idea that Governor Romney and I actually agreed on last year — let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.”

The current federal minimum wage, put in place in 2009, is $7.25 an hour.

If New Jersey voters approve the measure on the ballot there, the state would become the 11th with annual automatic increases to the minimum wage indexed to inflation: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington already index. In all of them except Vermont, voters approved the measure with the automatic hike at the polls.

Minimum wage laws generally apply to all employees in the private and public sector, although employees covered by union contracts tend to get higher rates than the state and federal minimum levels require. Some 120 cities have enacted “living wages” that require businesses that receive city contracts to pay more, ranging from $9 to $16 an hour. Maryland is the only state that has enacted a statewide living wage that requires certain state contractors to pay wages between $9.39 and $12.49 an hour.

“Indexing is certainly the trend in the states,” says Jen Kern, the minimum wage campaign coordinator at the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for the poor. State minimum wage proposals with indexing provisions are moving in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Mexico, New York and Minnesota.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia already mandate an hourly wage higher than the current federal $7.25 rate, including populous states such as California, Florida and Ohio. The states with the highest minimum wages are Washington and Oregon, which have wage floors of $9.19 and $8.95, respectively.

The federal minimum wage is the law in states that either have a lower minimum or none at all. But states are free to set higher floors than the federal government.

The first federal minimum wage was part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which President Franklin Roosevelt signed in 1938.

The law set a 25-cent-per-hour wage floor and a 44-hour workweek ceiling for most employees. Except for Social Security, Roosevelt said, the law was “the most far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted.”

In recent decades, proposed increases in the federal minimum wage have been politically divisive. But minimum wage hikes at the state level have been popular among voters: Since 1998, proposed increases have been on statewide ballots 10 times in nine states, and all of them were successful. In those elections the ballot measures won an average of 65 percent of the vote, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive Washington, D.C., group that advocated for the hikes.

Obama and other proponents of a higher federal minimum wage say that while companies are making record profits, the lowest-paid workers have seen their purchasing power plummet because the federal wage floor hasn’t kept pace with inflation. If it had, the hourly rate would be $10.59.

As supporters in New Mexico point out, the average cost of a gallon of milk in that state cost $2.69 in 2009, the last time the federal rate went up. Now it’s $3.50.

Gas was $2.51 a gallon in 2009, and now it’s $3.52. Putting more money into the pockets of working families will boost local economies by allowing these workers to spend more.

“Families are relying on low-wage jobs more than ever. A stronger minimum wage will help restore the consumer spending that powers our economy and that local businesses need in order to grow,” New Jersey Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver said in a statement. “A robust minimum wage is a key building block of sustainable economic recovery.”

Obama insists a higher minimum wage will reduce poverty “without measurably reducing employment.” He cited research by University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Arindrajit Dube, who examined minimum wage effects across state borders and found little impact on employment.

Leading Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate have introduced legislation that would go even further than the president’s plan: It would increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour in three steps of 95 cents, and provide for automatic annual increases linked to changes in the cost of living.

But opponents, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, counter that in a fragile recovery raising the minimum wage would spur employers to let some of their employees go.

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