Minimum wage battle should be over, but it’s not

February 11, 2014

On Jan. 30, Gov. Jack Markell signed a bill that will raise the hourly minimum wage in Delaware by increments: $7.75 by June 1 and $8.25 by June 1, 2015.

It easily passed both chambers of the General Assembly, 13-8 in the Senate and 27-14 in the House, so you’d be excused for thinking the battle’s over.

Not quite. Rep. Michael Ramone, R-Middle Run Valley, in a recent column pushed for modifications to the minimum wage law.

(Locally, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, voted in favor, while Republicans split, with Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, voting yes, and Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, and Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown all voting no.)

“Regardless of political affiliation,” Ramone wrote, “I believe the debate over minimum wage during the past year boils down to one thing - how best to get more money into the pockets of our lower wage earners in Delaware.”

That sounds good, and one of his proposals - a tax credit for lower wage workers - would seem to add to workers’ take-home pay.

But not others. Ramone is also calling for two exemptions to the minimum wage: one for seasonal employees and one for workers “not determined to be primary wage earners for the household.”

The proposed exemptions would allow employers to pay these workers a “training wage” equal to 75 percent of the minimum wage.

That would translate to $5.81 an hour through June 2015 and $6.19 thereafter.

Please. This is a disgrace. We already have large employers like Walmart and McDonald’s pushing their labor costs onto society by encouraging employees to sign up for government assistance.

Do we want to exacerbate this problem? Don’t we want to encourage people to work?

And while the increase would mean higher expenses for businesses, the raise is hardly excessive. (Also, it would put money in the pockets of people who would be most likely to spend.)

Since 1950, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics, the real national minimum wage - in constant dollars - has bounced around. It was $7.25 in 1950; reached a high of $10.69 in ’68; drifted down to $8.77 in ’81; and fell to a low of $6.58 in ‘07, before rising in 2009.

Raising it to $8.25 by next June will still leave the minimum wage well below what it was during President Reagan’s first term. Allowing a drop to $6.19 would be a big step backward.

Local activist Joanne Cabry on Sunday said she dislikes the phrase “minimum wage,” preferring “living wage” - which $5.81 an hour most certainly isn’t.

She said the Progressive Democrats of Sussex County have formed a new group called the 10.10 Club. It supports a “living wage” of $10.10 an hour, which comes out to about $20,000 a year, assuming vacation days. (Not that you could afford to take much of a vacation on 20 thousand bucks.)

The first 10.10 Club member is Marie Mayor, whose business is Lavender Fields Farm near Milton.

She’s also a Democrat who recently filed for the Representative District 20 seat, setting up a rematch of her 2012 contest with Steve Smyk.

The 10.10 Club plans to offer businesses decals they can display to show they are paying a fair wage. It will be interesting to see how businesses respond.

I don’t support a “training” or “seasonal” wage, but it gives me an idea.

With the General Assembly out of session much of the year, state legislators themselves qualify as “seasonal” employees. Perhaps they should vote themselves a “seasonal” wage of $5.81 an hour and see how it works out. In addition to saving the state a few bucks, it might provide them with a fresh perspective.

Biden calls attention to state, but not the way he wanted

Vice President Joe Biden last week inadvertently directed some blowback to his home state.

As part of an effort to promote investment in infrastructure, Biden recently called attention to New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Comparing it to Hong Kong’s modern facility, Biden said that if he took someone blindfolded to LaGuardia, “they’d think, ‘I must be in some Third World country.’ No, I’m not joking.”

And testy New Yorkers didn’t take his comments as a joke. The Atlantic’s Wire website quickly put up a story headlined, “Quiz: Can You Tell the Difference Between Biden’s State and a Third World Country?”

After saying, “People who live in Delaware houses shouldn’t throw stones,” the article invited people to guess whether five photos were from Delaware or from Third World Tanzania.

I won’t give away the answers but let’s just say the photos wouldn’t likely be featured on a website promoting Delaware tourism.

Kidding aside, the tempest in a teapot highlights an important issue: Investing in infrastructure makes sense, in Delaware, and across the country.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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