Washington should say yes to a bold experiment with a higher minimum wage.
THE minimum-wage experiment is sweeping the nation because it has a simple premise: A job ought not to be a poverty trap.
The slogan is a bit too nifty — a minimum-wage job, after all, is intended to be the first rung on a ladder built by education and hard work. And there is a cost to consumers and to businesses for a higher wage floor.
But the premise stands. An estimated 730,000 workers in Washington make the minimum wage of $9.47. If a worker didn’t take a single hour of vacation in a year, they’d earn $19,697, which is below the poverty line for a family of three.
That wage floor must rise. Voters should say yes to Initiative 1433, but also demand the Legislature fix some of the initiative’s flaws.
I-1433 would phase in a statewide $13.50 minimum wage by 2020 and require employers to provide paid sick leave. Beginning in 2021, the new minimum wage would be indexed to inflation, as the current minimum-wage law requires.
The national movement toward a higher minimum wage — 15 states have passed increases since the start of 2014 — worries businesses, particularly restaurants. But they should be reminded that we’ve been here before. In 1998, voters passed I-688, increasing the minimum wage from $4.90 an hour to $6.50 within two years. Restaurants, for the most part, adjusted for the higher cost of labor.
It is reasonable to expect some costs, especially in restaurants, to rise with I-1433. The initiative is about trade-offs: Consumers likely will be paying more to help the workers — and their families — at the bottom of the wage ladder. While it is easy to find economists on both sides of the debate, studies clearly show that poverty is a drag on students’ grades and behavior.
The Legislature should have done this work last year, and minimum-wage activists and the restaurant industry should have tried harder to reach a negotiated compromise. The initiative process is a blunt instrument for complex policy. This measure needs some tweaks.
If I-1433 passes, the Legislature should consider phasing in the $13.50 wage more slowly for low-cost rural areas, modeled on the approach the Oregon Legislature took this year with a new, geographically tiered minimum-wage law.
I-1433 gives the state Department of Labor and Industries authority to set a lower minimum wage for workers under 18. The agency should do that. If it doesn’t, the Legislature should step in. Lawmakers should also consider giving small businesses a longer phase-in for the initiative’s generous sick-leave provisions.
Lastly, the Legislature should mandate that researchers track effects of the law, similar to what Seattle did with its $15 minimum wage. Data should inform future fine-tuning of the law.
I-1433 is a big experiment. But for the sake of hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers, Washington should give it a try.