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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 26, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 09
Oregon leads the national minimum wage fight

Washington state supporters have launched initiative campaign
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Oregon leads the national minimum wage fight

Washington state supporters have launched initiative campaign

by Victor Hawthorne - SGN Contributing Writer

Last week, Democratic majorities in Oregon's House and Senate passed a bill that increases the state's minimum wage for all workers to the highest in the country.

Senate Bill 1532 now heads to Democratic Governor Kate Brown, who said in a statement that she will sign the bill into law. The law's three-tiered system, based on population density and geography, makes it the most sophisticated and progressive such law in the nation.

'I started this conversation last fall, bringing stakeholders together to craft a workable proposal; one that gives working families the much-needed wage boost they need, and addresses challenges for businesses and rural economies presented by the two impending ballot measures,' Brown said.

Oregon's tiered system addresses one of the main concerns some economists have about raising federal and state minimum wages: that rural communities would bear the greatest burden in lost jobs because their economies are not strong enough to start paying their low-wage workers a bit more. Oregon's tiered approach is an attempt to try and avoid this problem.

In and around the state's largest city, Portland, the minimum wage increase will be the greatest at $14.75 in 2022, while mid-sized counties in the remaining less densely populated region outside of Portland will see their minimum wage increase up to $13.50, and more rural areas will see theirs increase to $12.50 over the next six years.

Oregon's system also addresses another important issue that's been at the center of the debate over minimum wage in cities across the country: that the minimum wage should be adjusted for the cost of living. Since it is much more expensive to live in larger cities, Oregon lawmakers argue that the amount should then be determined regionally instead of statewide or nationally.

Due to gridlock at the national level concerning the issue, cities across the country, including San Francisco, New York, and Seattle have been leading the rest of the nation in implementing a living wage for residents.

Over the past 2 years, 14 other states have increased their rates, including a few traditionally conservative states: Alaska, Arkansas, and South Dakota in 2014. In an attempt to stop the national momentum, some conservative states have gone in the opposite direction, with Idaho blocking previous efforts to raise its rate beyond the federal level, and in Arizona, where lawmakers are considering a bill that would block state funding to municipalities that set a local minimum wage.

Yesterday the two sides of the issue collided in Birmingham, Alabama, which recently adopted a $10.10 hourly minimum wage.

Earlier this month, the Republican controlled House introduced a bill that would prevent cities from enacting their own minimum wage rates. That same day, Birmingham's city council passed their own law that advanced the first phase-in of the city's wage hike to March 1, hoping to get the pay raise in place before the state's law takes effect to gain better legal standing.

The state bill, also known as the Alabama Uniform Minimum Wage and Right to Work Act, passed the House last week and the Senate approved of the bill yesterday, while lawmakers in Birmingham have again attempted to stay ahead of the race by passing yet another bill on Tuesday that will make the $10.10 pay raise effective immediately as soon as it is advertised in a local newspaper, as required by law.

Even if Birmingham manages to outmaneuver the state, court battles are likely, with the state having the advantage, according to legal experts.

Here in Washington, where legislators debated a bill last year to increase the state's minimum wage to $12 an hour but failed, supporters of raising the minimum wage are taking it upon themselves to get the issue on the 2016 ballot. The campaign to raise Washington's minimum wage, Raise Up Washington, filed an initiative earlier this year to incrementally raise the rate to $13.50 an hour over four years starting in 2017 as well as providing paid sick leave to employees without it.

Ariana Davis, who works at a Safeway grocery store in Auburn, officially filed the ballot measure.

'Workers like me deserve to be able to earn a decent wage. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to work countless long demanding hours at a job and still not be able to afford basic necessities in life such as food, gas and rent,' she said at a press conference.

Under the Washington state proposal, minimum wage would increase to $11 in 2017, $11.50 in 2018, $12 in 2019, and $13.50 in 2020. An estimated additional $2.5 billion in income would go into the pockets of Washington state's 730,000 low-wage workers, many of whom are African American or Latino.

Supporters of the initiative are expected to reach the 246,000 valid voter signatures necessary to get the issue on the ballot in November, likely setting the stage for a brutal 2016 election season. Supporters of the initiative, however, remain determined, pointing at recent polls showing voters are supportive of a statewide minimum wage increase.

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