Washington voters overwhelmingly passed Initiative 1433, so our state minimum wage just rose to $11 per hour and will reach $13.50 in 2020. Amid today’s extreme income inequality, joining Washington in raising state minimum wages last fall were Arizona, Colorado and Maine, states that are both red and blue.
Lobbyists for restaurants, retailers and other low-wage industries have opposed these increases. They argue that these jobs are meant for teenagers starting their careers, not to pay a living wage. (In reality, 88 percent of minimum-wage workers are age 20 or older and the average age is about 35.) Voters rejected that argument. Business groups are now urging the Legislature to undermine the new law by creating a sub-minimum “training wage” for teenagers. It’s a controversial idea, it’s nothing new, and has been rejected in Olympia multiple times.
After I-1433 was filed last year, the Washington Restaurant Association (now Washington Hospitality Association) proposed its own $12 minimum wage initiative that included a teenager training wage of $9.50 for the first six months. Restaurant owners were divided on the idea so they never bothered to collect signatures. They abandoned it with good reason.
First, Washington already has a teenage minimum wage. Under current law, employers can pay 14- and 15-year-olds 85 percent of the minimum wage, or $9.35 today. This increases proportionately at the state minimum rises. I-1433 didn’t change that. Second, a training wage could lock fast-food, seasonal, and other kinds of workers who are often on the job fewer than six months into sub-minimum wages. Training for low-wage jobs usually take hours or weeks, not months.
Most importantly, the assumption that raising the minimum wage increases youth unemployment is flawed. Researchers at University of California at Berkeley studied this claim and concluded, “Put simply, our findings indicate that minimum-wage increases do not reduce employment among teens.”
Youth unemployment is a national phenomenon that bears no correlation to higher minimum wages. The national unemployment rate for workers ages 16-24 is 10.5 percent, well below the 20 percent rate from 2010, but still roughly double the overall unemployment rate.
The state youth unemployment rate is 11.7 percent, slightly above the national average — just as our overall unemployment rate is slightly higher — which ranks us 24th highest. Which states have the highest youth unemployment? West Virginia (state minimum wage: $8.75), South Carolina ($7.25) and Georgia ($5.15!).
Allowing a new sub-minimum training wage would create an incentive to hire cheaper teenagers instead of adults, undermining job opportunities for the struggling families I-1433 was designed to help. Voters heard this argument against giving teenagers raises and rejected it, and so should the Legislature.
Jeff Johnson is president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.