Big Island, Maui Lawmakers Push to Raise Proposed Minimum Wage

February 26, 2020, 7:30 AM HST (Updated February 26, 2020, 6:32 AM)
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A Big Island senator pledged to donate thousands of dollars of his own salary to charity until lawmakers raise the minimum wage to at least $15.

The pledge comes after Hawai‘i lawmakers passed House Bill 2541 in House Committee on Labor & Public Employment and the Committee on Finance, which increases the minimum wage incrementally to $13 an hour by 2024. The bill now moves to the full House for second reading.

Sen. Russell Ruderman along with Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger (D-Kihei, Wailea, Makena), both small business owners on their islands, believe the bill could do better. The difference between $13 an hour and $15 an hour works out to about $4,000 annually, which would go a long way toward basic necessities.

Until minimum wage is increased to $15, both lawmakers promised to give $4,000 annually as long as they receive a state salary, starting January 2021, when all legislators are scheduled to receive a raise.

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Money will go toward a nonprofit for paying off school lunch debt for students in their districts.

“A $15/hour minimum wage places most of the burden on the private sector where it belongs, instead of continuing to burden our State coffers with public assistance and the costs of homelessness” Ruderman said. “We have exactly one tool in our toolbox to dramatically reduce poverty in our state: a major increase in the minimum wage. This will do more to address homelessness than all the multi-million-dollar proposals we are considering.”

According to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, “self-sufficiency income” for a single worker with no children was $15.84 an hour in 2016, which works out to about $17 an hour when adjusted for inflation in 2019 dollars and will likely be even higher in 2024.

“Even though at least $17 is what everyone knows is needed now, $15/hr would be acceptable if there is a clear path, with periodic cost of living increases built in, to a $17 true living wage in short order,” a press release from Wildberger’s office stated.

Wildberger has been paying all employees at her small business a minimum wage of $15 since October 2015.

“It means less money goes to my retirement, but it’s the right thing to do so my employees don’t have to work 2 or 3 jobs just to get by” Wildberger said. “My heart breaks for the families who can’t afford to pay for their kids’ school lunches because the legislature hasn’t found a path to raise the minimum wage to keep up with the cost of living.”

Testimony against the $15 increase contend the minimum wage was never meant to be a living wage as most workers are usually teenagers. The two lawmakers argue that it doesn’t matter, referencing when the federal minimum wage was first instituted in 1933.

Created by Franklin D. Roosevelt, he stated, “no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country… and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level—I mean the wages of decent living.”

Ruderman agrees.

“Some say small business cannot afford this. I say we cannot afford not to do this, as the wealth inequality in our state is already unsustainable,” he said. “There are costs to constant turnover, for employees who cannot afford their lives, and having people sleeping in doorways. I have over 250 employees. This increase will cost me money which I will happily pay in exchange for a better society.”

The lawmakers suggested various solutions the legislature could put in place to make minimum wage more acceptable, including:

• Exemptions for businesses with 10 or fewer employees
• Exemptions for employees who are under the age of 18
• A 90-day introductory period where an employer can opt to pay a slightly lower wage
• A sliding-scale tip credit for high-earning tipped employees who regularly make $20-60/hour or more in tips

“We are the bluest state in the nation and we’re supposed to be on the side of workers. We have a much higher cost-of-living than other states that have already enacted $15 an hour. There is no good excuse for our inaction” Ruderman said.

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