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Minimum wage increase: DFL’s legislative struggles a big surprise

With the DFL in control, most assumed a generous increase would happen quickly, but it’s been tough sledding, particularly in the Senate.

According to most state stats, there are about 93,000 Minnesotans working at minimum wage.
REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

When the DFL took control of the Legislature in November, most assumed that passage of a generous increase in the minimum wage would happen quickly.

After all, what could be more DFL than holding out a hand to the state’s poorest-paid workers?

 Given that the state minimum ($6.15) already lags the feds’ minimum ($7.25,) given that the minimum wage hasn’t been increased since 2005 and given that the purchasing power of the minimum wage was higher in 1968 than it is now, it seemed nothing would prevent DFLers from enacting a substantial increase. 

It turns out this isn’t your grandparents’ DFL, especially in the state Senate, where even the most minimum of minimums has faced toughed sledding.

Senate sponsor favors House version

A minimum wage proposal finally has gasped its way out of Senate committees and to the floor, but it’s so tepid that the sponsor, Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Park, hopes that if it reaches conference committee, the House version would prevail.

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Eaton sounds almost embarrassed when she speaks of the Senate bill on the minimum wage increase. It calls for a raise of 25 cents in 2014 and another 25 cents in 2015. Additionally, any language about cost-of-living increases and any language about reducing the barrier to overtime from 48 to 40 hours a week have been stripped.

“I think the issue in the Senate is that we have a much more conservative bunch than expected,” Eaton said. “Some of the people from the suburbs — and some from the rural areas — are having trouble with this.”

The House version, which Eaton favors, is much more in keeping with what most labor and other workers organizations had in mind.

That bill calls for the minimum to be raised, over a three-year period beginning Aug. 1, to $9.95 an hour. Additionally, it would include cost-of-living tails into future years and would make the 40-hour week a base for considering overtime.

“I think everybody is shocked at how difficult this is turning out to be,’’ said Kris Jacobs, who heads the progressive Jobs Now Coalition.

Intense business lobbying

She believes what’s happened is that the Senate has proved to be “a smaller target” for an array of business organizations (ranging from the hospitality industry to agriculture) to lobby.

“Senators are being bombarded with calls and e-mails and lobbyists,” she said. “But that they’re reacting to this just defies the imagination.”

The ag industry wants no change in the overtime week standard, which means no extra pay until after a worker puts in 48 hours in a week.

The hospitality industry is pushing hard for the so-called tip credit. That provision means a server who makes more than $12 an hour in tips is not eligible for a higher minimum wage.

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Other businesses, and most GOP legislators, argue that higher minimum wages would end up with businesses in general cutting their numbers of employees.

“They [Republicans] want it both ways,” Jacobs said. “First, they say, ‘There really aren’t many people working for minimum wage.’  In the next breath, they say, ‘Holy crap! If we raise the minimum, the sky would fall!’ You can’t have it both ways.’’

Although typically small businesses line up as foes of an increased minimum, the AFL-CIO had planned to hold a Tuesday media event at the Capitol that would include owners of some small businesses as well as religious leaders urging the Legislature to seek “a meaningful increase’’ in the minimum wage. (Because of weather conditions affecting participants’ travel, organizers say the event will be rescheduled.)

According to most state stats, there are about 93,000 Minnesotans working at minimum wage. But, Jacobs said, there are about 500,000 workers in the state earning less than $10 an hour.

Studies show that a a family of four needs two wage earners earning $14 an hour to meet basic needs, according to Jacobs and Rep. Ryan Winkler, who is carrying the House minimum wage bill.

Raising the minimum, both said, would help raise the floor of thousands of poorly paid workers.

The Senate’s difficulties in moving decisively on the minimum wage issue are creating a lot of head-shaking in the House. DFLers there are surprised at the conservatism being displayed in the Senate on a number of issues.

Ironic legislative pay raise?

At least three DFL House members, who asked not to be named, said that they find it “ironic” that Senate DFLers would vote for a large raise for themselves but can’t seem to support a meaningful increase in the minimum wage. 

“I think the Senate is getting confused by what’s controversial with lobbyists and what’s controversial with the public,” said Winkler.  “Raising the minimum wage has 70 percent approval with the public. If you can’t do this as a Democrat, what can you do?”

Winkler expects the House version to reach the floor by next week. He expects quick passage and seems to believe there might even be a few GOP legislators who will support the measure.

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Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, attempted to dramatize the importance of the bill by living on a minimum wage for a week. He excluded such things as paying his mortgage (“I didn’t want to lose my house”) but ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches in an effort to stay within the $5 a day he budgeted for food. His efforts to find an affordable apartment on a minimum-wage budget either in St. Paul or Virginia proved fruitless.

At the current minimum — the $7.25 rate — Metsa budgeted $360 for monthly rent. At the $9.95 rate proposed by the House, he figured he’d be able to budget $495 for rent. But, he said, the best rental deal he could find would cost about $585 — and “they also wanted a $250 damage deposit.”

(A note of explanation on minimums: That $6.15 state minimum rate can be paid only by those not doing business across state lines. All others must pay the federal rate. The state’s minimum lags most in the nation, although it is higher than the minimums offered in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.)

As strong a supporter as he is of the House version, Metsa, a legislative rookie, is attempting to understand the shyness of his DFL colleagues in the Senate.

“Their concerns are so many things coming at once to business owners,” Metsa said. “I understand that. You can’t have a tidal wave.”

Still, for the DFL to struggle on this issue is surprising to him. And stunning to others.

“Raising the minimum is a win-win,” said Winkler. “If you put an extra $700 or $800 in a worker’s pocket, that money is going to be spent. Everybody will benefit.”

That’s not what DFLers in the Senate seem to believe.