As Washington lawmakers discuss whether to raise the state's minimum wage, a bill introduced by Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, would do just the opposite for some workers.
House Bill 2614 would establish a "training wage" allowing employers to pay new workers less than minimum wage for up to 680 hours. The bill received a public hearing Tuesday before the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee.
Pike described the bill as a benefit for young, unskilled workers, making it easier for employers to hire them. She said the idea came from a business roundtable discussion she hosted last fall.
"It gives these young people a chance to get in the workforce, get some experience," Pike said during the hearing, which was broadcast by TVW. "This bill is a job creator for young people."
The proposal would allow employers to pay new workers 75 percent of the state or federal minimum wage, whichever is higher. Washington's minimum wage is currently $9.32 per hour. The lower training wage could be paid for a maximum of 680 hours. A part-time employee working 20 hours per week, for example, could be paid the lower wage for 34 weeks.
The idea was met with some opposition during Tuesday's hearing. Among those testifying against the bill was Teresa Mosqueda of the Washington State Labor Council. She argued the bill doesn't provide the proper safeguards for workers, and includes no requirement that employers actually train workers while they're paid a training wage.
"This is not a training period. This is simply a low-wage period," Mosqueda said. "We simply see this as a sub-minimum wage bill."
Other opponents said the bill could encourage businesses to churn through workers and use high turnover to keep paying the lower wage. If an employer discharges a new worker before 680 hours, it must provide an explanation to the state Department of Labor and Industries, according to the bill.
Representatives of the retail and restaurant industries that oppose raising the minimum wage appeared to back Pike's idea. Russell Brent, owner of Mill Creek Pub in Battle Ground, said the training wage would give businesses more flexibility and give more workers experience.
"I would like to see young people get an opportunity, the same opportunity I had," Brent said, noting many restaurants operate on thin margins. He added: "This training wage or on-the-job training package I think would provide an opportunity for students to get a leg up."
Though Pike and others emphasized young workers in their testimony, the bill includes no age requirement on who could be paid the lower training wage. Existing state law already allows employers to request certificates to pay below minimum wage to certain categories of workers, including physically or mentally handicapped workers, students in vocational programs and others.
Minimum wage hike
Discussion of Pike's bill came on the same day the committee heard testimony on a separate proposal to raise the state's minimum wage. House Bill 2672, introduced by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, would increase the state minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2017.
Farrell said the proposal is a way to address income inequality and improve the lives of low-wage workers and the communities they live in.
"We get to put money back into the economy," Farrell said. "Low-wage workers are very likely to put those dollars right back into their communities."
Opponents argued that raising the minimum wage would hurt businesses, and wouldn't help workers as intended. Some suggested education and workforce training are better ways to help low-wage earners boost their income.
H.B. 2672 has a long list of co-sponsors, including Democratic state Reps. Jim Moeller and Sharon Wylie, both of Vancouver.