In Our View: Training Wage Idea Lacking

Bill skewed too far toward job providers; it needs refinements to be more workable

Published:

 

It's like a pizza that is slightly undercooked, a wine that isn't quite fermented. It's an idea with some delicious ingredients, yet it hasn't been thought through quite enough to make it palatable.

Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, has proposed a bill in the Washington Legislature that would allow employers to hire some workers at a sub-minimum "training" wage. The idea, say Pike and the bill's supporters, is that the lower wage would entice businesses to add positions for unskilled, inexperienced workers. The employees, meanwhile, would receive training and important résumé boosters.

"It gives these young people a chance to get in the workforce, get some experience," Pike said this week during a public hearing before the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee. "This bill is a job creator for young people."

That certainly could be beneficial. As studies have shown, the Great Recession has been hardest in many ways for young people. Older displaced workers have taken many jobs typically held by young employees — that is, when there are jobs for the taking.

Pike's proposal is the latest addition to the burgeoning debate over the minimum wage. President Obama has called for a boost to the federal minimum wage, which has been at $7.25 an hour since July 2009; the city of SeaTac passed a $15 wage for some workers in last November's election; some leaders have proposed a $15 minimum for Seattle; and lawmakers are considering a bill that would raise the statewide minimum to $12. Washington has the highest minimum wage of any state in the country ± a rate that grows annually with the cost of living and stands at $9.32 per hour this year.

Pike's proposal would allow employers to pay new workers 75 percent of the state or federal minimum wage, whichever is higher, which works out to $6.99 an hour this year. The lower wage could be in place for a maximum of 680 hours — or 34 weeks for a 20-hour-a-week employee. Hence the notion of a "training" wage.

The idea has some merits, but they are outweighed by the shortcomings. "This is not a training period. This is simply a low-wage period," Teresa Mosqueda of the Washington State Labor Council testified. "We simply see this as a sub-minimum wage bill."

Indeed, there is little to prevent employers from using churn to perpetually maintain sub-minimum-wage positions. The bill calls for employers to provide an explanation to the state Department of Labor and Industries if they discharge a new worker before 680 hours, but there's nothing to keep them from letting a worker go after, say, 700 hours and starting anew with an employee at below minimum wage.

The U.S. minimum wage was born of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and it has been a political football ever since. Today, state law includes provisions allowing sub-minimum wage for physically or mentally impaired workers; for workers in college or vocational programs; and for workers in occupations where there are insufficient numbers of experienced employees. Federal law also allows for workers younger than 20 years of age to be paid below minimum wage for the first 90 days of their employment.

A "training" period of 90 days — or slightly longer — seems more reasonable than the 680 hours called for in Pike's bill. While designed to give employers incentive to create new positions and hire people who otherwise might be unable to find work, House Bill 2614 errs too much on the side of job providers. A little more cooking would make the proposal a bit tastier.