Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Law is clear: State’s minimum wage must rise January 1

From the Everett Herald:

John Burbank, Executive Director

The attorney general is our state’s top legal officer. The attorney general’s website states, “We serve the citizens of Washington with the highest standards of excellence, ethics and effectiveness.”

But this September, Rob McKenna, the current attorney general, is advising the state to violate the law and to deny citizens their rights as wage earners.

Let’s start from the top.

In 1998, the people passed Initiative 688, increasing the minimum wage from $4.90 an hour to $6.50 and then indexing it to inflation. This initiative passed overwhelmingly, by a 2-to-1 margin. In Snohomish County 119,000 voters supported this measure, dwarfing the 64,000 votes in opposition.

So now each year the state calculates the new minimum wage, based on the increase in the consumer price index of the previous 12 months. Currently, that minimum hourly wage is $8.55.

Our minimum wage has helped to protect the most poorly paid workers in our state. The old claim that raising it would decrease jobs has been completely debunked by our experience here and across the country.

The minimum wage has been particularly important during recessions, when these workers lose any sort of bargaining power they might have had. This recession has pushed many workers down to minimum-wage pay, so that workers earning the minimum wage are at an all-time high, including more than 3,600 in Snohomish County. The minimum wage gives them a floor above poverty, but not by much. And because it does not keep up with increases in productivity, it also does not adequately reflect their contributions to economic activity, sales, goods and services, and profits. And now our attorney general wants to kick them while they are down.

In comparable dollars, today’s minimum wage is actually lower than it was 40 years ago. The state minimum wage was $1.60 in 1968; if it had kept pace with inflation, it would now be $10.48. But even so, the actual minimum wage is a lot better in Washington than in Idaho, where you get $1.30 less per hour. Or in Georgia, where if you are a waiter, you can depend on $2.13 an hour! Now that would put you in the flotsam of poverty.

Our minimum wage concept has been taken up by many other states across the country, which have both raised their minimum wage and indexed it to inflation. Oregon, Vermont and Florida are among the states that increase their minimum wage each year to keep up. Oregon just announced its minimum wage will increase by 10 cents on Jan. 1 to keep up with inflation.

So how about us? McKenna is advising the Department of Labor and Industries to not calculate the increase in the minimum wage required by law. He wants the state to ignore the specific language of the law that the people approved. That law states, “On September 30, 2000, and on each following September 30th, the department of labor and industries shall calculate an adjusted minimum wage … by increasing the current year’s minimum wage rate by the rate of inflation. The adjusted minimum wage rate shall be calculated… using the consumer price index … for the twelve months prior to each September 1st….” The language of the law could not be more clear. And yet McKenna states “no minimum wage increase is authorized.”

The question then becomes: Will the governor and the Department of Labor and Industries bow to McKenna’s advice to break the minimum wage law that the people themselves approved, or will our state government abide by this law? The calculations are quite simple. Right now the minimum wage is $8.55 an hour. Inflation was 1.4 percent between August 2009 and August 2010. That equals a 12-cent increase in the minimum wage. So starting Jan. 1, 2011, our state’s minimum wage should be $8.67 an hour.

Even at the minimum wage, 12 cents doesn’t look like much. But that is the magic of indexing the wage to inflation: it keeps up workers’ purchasing power. Let it lapse for one year or two years or five years, and we have dug a big hole down into the poverty of the past. We can’t afford to do that. And our law says that we must not do that.

So on Thursday, our eyes will be on Olympia to see if our government enforces the law and announces the minimum wage for 2011 of $8.67, or whether it meekly and illegally follows the scrooge-like advice of Rob McKenna, thumbing his nose at both minimum-wage workers and the voting public.

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