Voters in four states on Tuesday will consider ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage, threatening to widen the disparity between the growing number of jurisdictions that have lifted their pay floors and the rest of the country.
In Arizona, Colorado and Maine, state hourly minimums would rise to $12 by 2020 from a range of $7.50 to $8.31. In Washington, the pay floor would climb from $9.47 to $13.50 over the next four years. Polls in the four states generally show solid majorities supporting the measures.
A sweep would widen the gap between the 29 states — with 60% of the U.S. workforce — that now have base wages higher than the federal government’s $7.25 an hour, and the 21 states that remain at the U.S. minimum, according to the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.
In the past couple of years, about 20 states and dozens of cities and counties have approved gradual increases in their pay floors through legislation or ballot initiatives as Republicans in Congress have blocked efforts to raise the federal minimum.
“This is about states taking matters into their own hands,” says Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the NELP Action Fund, the group’s policy advocacy arm.
About 2 million workers in the four states voting Tuesday would be affected by an increase in their pay floors, according to NELP. Proponents of the measures say higher wages are needed to provide lower- and middle-income households a reasonable standard of living and narrow the yawning divide between those groups and the wealthy.
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez says the increasing divergence among state minimum wages heightens the need to lift the national pay base. “You shouldn’t have to win the geographic lottery to get access to a (higher) minimum wage,” he said in an interview.
Employers in states at the federal pay floor are at a growing disadvantage as they scramble to attract workers in a tightening labor market with a low 4.9% unemployment rate, Conti says.
But Michael Saltsman, research director for the Employment Policies Institute, which is backed by the restaurant industry, says, “The exact opposite is the case,” with businesses drawn to states with lower labor costs. Higher minimum wages, he argues, have prodded some restaurants and retailers to cut staff or close, and to hire older, more experienced employees, closing off opportunities for teenagers and lower-skilled adults.
“You going to make it that much more difficult for people to find jobs at the bottom end of the career ladder,” he says.
Still, Americans generally favor a higher minimum wage, according to surveys, and their views could impact key Senate races. A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling for NELP’s action fund showed voters in states such as Missouri and North Carolina switching preferences after learning of Republican Senate candidates’ opposition to raising the minimum wage.
Proponents of the hikes at least partly attribute the shift by states to the Fight for $15 campaign that has led fast- food worker strikes across the USA since 2012 and is financed by the Service Employees Union international.
Earlier this year, California and New York approved minimum wage increases to $15 an hour by 2022, joining cities such as Seattle and San Francisco.