Not that it comes as a surprise to anyone. On Jan. 1, 2013, Washington’s minimum wage will rise from $9.04 to $9.19 an hour, the state Department of Labor and Industries announced Friday. The automatic increase is announced every year at this time, the result of an inflation adjustment established by initiative 688 in 1998.
“It is fantastic for those who’ve already got a job,” said Patrick Connor, director of the Washington chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. “It is not good news for those who are looking for one.”
Washington’s first-place finish was inevitable. It is one of just 10 states that tie the minimum wage to inflation. And not just any measure of inflation, but the so-called CPI-W, the consumer price index for urban wage earners and clerical workers. It is the highest of all the inflation measures calculated by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. What it means is that a measure based on the living expenses for just 32 percent of the nation’s workers governs the minimum wage in the Washington hinterland, everywhere from Tekoa to Tenino. Thus when Washington took first place nationwide back in 2004, it was all but certain that the Evergreen State would keep that position in perpetuity – unless some state Legislature somewhere decided to top it. The other 49 have chosen to let Washington retain the honor. Only one jurisdiction nationwide beats Washington, the city of San Francisco, which requires a minimum wage of $10.24.
Nearly Two Dollars Higher
Washington next year will be about two dollars higher than most states. That’s because 32 states follow the federal standard of $7.25 an hour. Washington is among the 18 states that set a higher wage of their own.
So when the federal minimum wage remains stable, as it has since July 24, 2009, the spread gets bigger. Today employers in Washington state pay entry-level workers the highest wage in the country. The increase has an effect further up the ladder, because other workers’ salaries are often pegged at the minimum plus a buck or two. Whether that is a good thing is in the eye of the beholder. The state Labor Council, which sponsored the initiative, says the fifteen-cent increase is welcome news for struggling workers, and ought to be for business as well.
“More money in the pockets of minimum wage workers should be great news to the business community,” said Kathy Cummings, spokeswoman for the Washington State Labor Council. “This money goes right back into the economy. The increase proves the law is working just as voters intended. We’ve watched gas and food prices rise a lot in the last few months and it only makes sense for Washington’s lowest paid workers to get this little boost to keep food on the table and their cars on the road.”
Teen Unemployment High
Critics are essentially resigned to the increase – unless lawmakers decide to change the law or the people repeal it, Washington may be tops forever. But they say it is one of the reasons teen unemployment is so high. Right now Washington ranks 9th in the country for youth unemployment, meaning those age 24 and younger, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those age 16 and 17, it is difficult these days even finding a job. Kids of that age are limited to 20 hours a week when school is in session, though variances are available for up 28 hours, and they also are barred from tasks the state deems hazardous, like driving cars, operating forklifts and operating meat-slicing machines.
State Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, the Republican lead on the House Labor and Commerce Committee, says the combination of the restrictions and the high entry-level wage are making it extremely difficult for employers to hire high-school-age workers. He advocates a lower temporary “training wage” for youth. “We either have to relax the regulations for 16 and 17 year olds, or else we have to give them a different wage scale, because the combination is just lethal for them. We don’t have anyone over here hiring 16 and 17-year-olds anymore. It has just absolutely disappeared. That used to be what all the fast-food places did. But they all are going 18 and up now, because of the severe restrictions on the 16 and 17-year-olds, and if you’re going to pay them the same wage and have all the restrictions, they have no advantage whatsoever.”
Connor said it is hard for employers to justify spending nearly $10 an hour to train workers who have no experience. “I think the problem with the ongoing escalation of the minimum wage is that they are really denying teen workers in particular the first job that teaches them the skills and work habits they need to be successful later on in their careers.”
This year’s increase reflects a 1.67 percent increase in the CPI-W, which was announced Sept. 14. The index measures the average price change for goods and services, including food, clothing, shelter, fuel, and doctor visits.