Minimum-wage bills raise economic and social-justice arguments

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporterA teenager slicing toast with one hand and brandishing a cell phone in the other isn’t worth $10 an hour, businesswoman Peggy Rasmussen told  state senators on Wednesday (March 6).Rasmussen, owner of Peg’s Countryside Cafe on Highway 55 in Medina, appeared before a Senate committee reviewing minimum-wage-increase legislation. One of the bills, authored by Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, aims to raise the state minimum wage for large employers to $10.55 an hour over two years — current federal minimum wage paid by most businesses is $7.25.
Tyler Newman, a college student from Eagan, read a statement before a Senate committee on Wednesday (March 7) in support of a state minimum wage increase. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Tyler Newman, a college student from Eagan, read a statement before a Senate committee on Wednesday (March 7) in support of a state minimum wage increase. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

The bill would push the minimum wage for smaller employers in two years to $9 an hour, and in both cases add an adjuster for inflation..

Latz heralded “morally justifiable” wages as rewarding hard-working people.

But Rasmussen asked whether the “toast master” — the 14, 15-year old slicing and buttering the breakfast toast at the cafe, deserved more money.

“I do believe free enterprise and social justice can come together,” Rasmussen said, saying she considers the hiring and training of young people a business responsibility.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.

But there are limits, she suggested.

Others agreed.

Indeed, a long list of business people and representatives cautioned lawmakers about the minimum wage.

Mike Hickey, of the National Federation of Independent Business-Minnesota, argued it was never meant to be top-end pay.

“It’s a starting wage,” he said.

Supporters of minimum wage increases, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce official Ben Gerber argued, cite CEO salaries as justification, but there’s nothing in the minimum wage bills addressing CEO pay.

Gerber lauded the “soft-skills,” vital people skills, people entering the workforce can learn working lower pay jobs. Minimum-wage-increase advocates were overlooking a key point, he argued.

“It’s more important they get a job than get minimum wage,” Gerber said of the unemployed.

Brian Kopp, general manager of Lunds, spoke of the proposed minimum-wage increases costing the company more than $2 million by 2014.

Business leader did not like the automatic wage-adjuster provisions.

One asked, if the economy falters, whether the adjuster kick wages down.

They don’t want to seem uncaring, Rob Hart, Employment Solutions Staffing Group, said.

But it’s “unprecedented” to raise the minimum wage so high, so quickly, as bills propose, he said.

Others saw the wage issue differently.

Nicole Hilgendorf, a server from Minneapolis, said the idea that just college students or young people work as waiters and waitresses is untrue.

Many restaurant workers are older people with families and homes.

Waiting is their career, she said.

Tyler Newman, a college student from Eagan, said in the 1960s a college student could work part time and pay for tuition.

No more, he said.

Raising the state minimum wage to $10.55 an hour would allow students to attend college and graduate without crushing debt, Newman argued.

According the Jobs Now Coalition, the federal minimum wage — which is applied in most minimum-wage jobs — translates to about $15,000 a year for a full-time worker.

At such an amount, a couple with two children would have to work 155 hours a week to meet basic family needs, the group says.

Only four other states or territories –Wyoming, Arkansas, Georgia and Puerto Rico – have state minimum wages below the federal level, as Minnesota does, according to the group.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, spoke of a commission to end poverty by 2020 touring the state, making recommendations, and of passing time.

“It’s a sad situation,” Marty said.

Rather than being idle, many poor families work multiple jobs, he explained.

“Ending poverty is a question of political will,” Marty said.

“I think workers deserve the dignity of a decent wage,” he said.

Marty is offering legislation to increase the minimum wage for large employers — defined as those with gross sales more than $625,000 — to $10 an hour beginning in August, $10.75 an hour beginning next year.

Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, is proposing legislation to increase the state minimum for large employers from $6.15 an hour to $7.50 an hour.

Eaton, though not proposing to increase the state minimum wage for small employers — those under the $625,000 threshold — proposes to place the state minimum wages on automatic cost-of-living adjustment.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, is carrying minimum-wage-increase legislation in the House.

Tim  Budig can be reached at [email protected]