State has to lead way on making wages livable

January 17, 2014 

In his State of the State Address, Gov. Jay Inslee joined a national conversation about income inequity — a conversation that recently preoccupied Sea-Tac and Seattle voters. The governor called for “an increase in the range of $1.50 to $2.50 an hour” in the state’s minimum wage — presently $9.32 an hour — as “a step toward closing the widening economic gap.”

Yet, because such an increase (or any, for that matter) is unlikely to get through the Republican-controlled Senate, the state should model best practices by immediately raising wages for the workers it keeps in poverty.

Food service or laundry workers at the Rainier School in Buckley, for example, make as little as $10.83 hourly serving those with disabilities. The state can raise those wage scales.

Workers providing long-term care in homes must wait until July for a 50-cent-an-hour increase in $10.03 hourly starting wages (and wait until July 2015 to see those wages rise to $11.03). The state can reopen their contract and do the right thing now.

In other cases, state funding suppresses wages. For example, Medicaid reimbursement for nursing homes is still based upon 2007 wage costs, through at least June 2015. State funding, of as little as $24.78 for an infant’s day-long care, keeps child-care workers in poverty. The state can correct these inequities.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray modeled best practices in the Seattle push for a higher minimum wage when he signed an executive order to bring city workers up to $15 an hour.

There is no question that the minimum wage is not a living wage for those who rely upon it to live. No one can doubt the commitment of workers protesting for higher wages.

Yet it’s troubling that some embracing this latest cause were unconcerned about, if not complicit in, a coercive vote that stripped future pensions from Machinists to obtain 777X work. After all, obtaining old-age pensions was an original economic justice crusade of the working class. One step forward, 10 steps back? We cannot fail to honor all facets of economic security.

Had Congress kept up the federal minimum wage over the years, we would have empirical evidence validating, or disproving, article-of-faith arguments for or against increases. I still recall working for the federal minimum wage during a 10-year period (1981-90) in which it was stuck at $3.35 an hour.

It’s regrettable the current effort by congressional Democrats and President Obama to increase the minimum wage did not occur when they actually had the ability to deliver one, following the 2008 election. But if a policy window has opened, however belatedly, the conversation is worth having.

Another reason why state government should go first, given the argument that an increase of as much as 27 percent in the minimum wage is achievable, is that state government itself has not increased wages for state workers or teachers in several years.

Indeed, state workers just recently had 3 percent wage cuts restored, while teachers’ salaries were impacted by a one-time 1.9 percent reduction in state compensation funding (to his credit, Inslee supports restoring long-suspended, voter-approved, K-12 cost-of-living increases).

Unless state government leads the way, businesses can rightfully complain government lacks the courage of its own convictions. Let’s get the conversation started the right way.

Olympia attorney Brendan Williams was a 22nd District representative from 2005-11.

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