OLYMPIA — A bill allowing small businesses to pay new employees less than minimum wage could come before the full state Senate, after passing the Commerce & Labor Committee this week.

Senate Bill 5275 would establish a training wage equal to the federal minimum wage or 75 percent of the state minimum wage — whichever is higher — for the first 680 hours a new employee works. Minimum wage in the state is currently $9.19 per hour, meaning the training wage would be set at $6.89 per hour.

Only businesses with 50 or fewer employees could pay the training wage, according to the bill, but only if fewer than 10 percent of the workers receive the lower wage.

The state already has a training-wage law allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work for 85 percent of the state minimum wage. Other states, including Minnesota and Illinois, allow young employees to work at reduced wages.

Labor advocates worry the bill could encourage employers to fire experienced workers and hire less-expensive new employees.

But sponsor Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, hopes lower wages for new employees would motivate small-business owners to bring teenagers into the workforce and allow them to gain valuable work experience.

“I do see this as an additional tool to employers to incentivize them to take the time and train a new worker,” she said.

Erin Shannon, of the Washington Policy Center, which supports a training wage, said a high percentage of Washington teens are unemployed because small-business owners can’t afford to hire them at minimum wage, especially since young people tend to take jobs temporarily.

Most employers have to “take a gamble” on young workers, she said.

But the bill doesn’t have an age limit as other states’ training-wage laws do, noted Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, who opposes the measure. He said the legislation is an effort to lower the state’s minimum wage.

Stefan Moritz, a spokesman for the Unite Here Local 8 union representing Seattle hotel workers, said the bill would hurt those who already have a hard time supporting families on their pay.

“Full-time workers in our industry are working hard every day to put food on the table,” Moritz said. “They barely stay above the poverty line. The result is they need food stamps, public housing and Medicaid.”

Amelia Dickson: 360-236-8267 or adickson@seattletimes.com