Editorial: No on I-1433’s one-size-fits-all wage increases

By The Herald Editorial Board

At one time, Washington state had the highest minimum wage in the nation, and at the direction of voters in 1998, cost-of-living increases are made each year, putting the current rate at $9.47 an hour.

Washington now has the ninth highest minimum wage behind California and Massachusetts at $10, Oregon and Alaska at $9.75; Rhode Island, Vermont and Connecticut at $9.60; and Minnesota at $9.50. For comparison, the federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour.

Initiative 1433 seeks to boost that rate for employees 18 and older to $11 an hour on Jan. 1, 2017, $11.50 in 2018, $12 in 2019 and $13.50 in 2020. The initiative would also provide for paid sick leave, requiring employers to offer an hour of paid leave for every 40 hours worked.

The initiative could increase the take-home pay of an estimated 730,000 workers in the state, providing not just a better living for those workers but a boost for local economies, too.

But there are doubts about how some of those same workers might be effected as employers make adjustments to hours and staffing to comply with the new wage limit.

Some insight has been provided by a study from the University of Washington’s Evans School for Public Policy and Governance of Seattle’s phased-in minimum wage increase, now at $11 an hour. A year into the increase the study found mixed results, with workers earning more but working fewer hours than they might have without the wage hike.

But as other cities and states have passed minimum wage laws, dozens of economists have dived in to study the effects, often finding conflicting results. The Washington Post in July noted one study that found a higher minimum wage resulted in increased birth weights for infants because young women were healthier in states with a higher minimum wage.

As more studies are completed and more results are gathered over time, we might get a clearer picture on the costs and benefits of a higher minimum wage. For now that leaves us to judge the pros and cons of I-1433.

Legislative hemming and hawing is the mother of citizen initiatives, but the debate that occurs there can produce law that better addresses concerns and avoids unintended consequences. The increase passed this year by Oregon’s legislature, for example, recognizes the differences in cost of living throughout the state and sets separate rates for the Portland metro area, other urban areas and non-urban counties.

As written, I-1433 recognizes no difference between an employee’s costs to live in Seattle and those of someone living in Granite Falls. Nor does the initiative recognize the differences in the strengths of those same local economies and their ability to support such an increase.

The initiative also unfortunately ties the sick leave provision to the minimum wage increase, forcing an all-or-nothing choice on voters.

A much easier case can be made for the initiative’s sick-leave provisions, which would not have been as onerous a demand on employers and would have helped ensure healthy workplaces.

We’re not impressed with the arguments of the initiative’s opponents who claim that paid sick leave would be open to abuse by employees. A survey by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics found that workers on average used about four days of sick leave a year, half of the amount allotted to them. And I-1433 would provide a requirement that workers verify the reason, such as a note from a doctor, for absences of more than three days.

Instead of a burden for businesses, paid sick leave results in healthier workplaces with better productivity.

Given its own initiative, the sick leave provision might have had an easier path to becoming law.

Just as the case can be made for a mandatory sick leave policy, there are reasons to support an increase in the minimum wage; the current minimum wage doesn’t offer a living wage for single-parent families, leaving too many to rely on taxpayer-supported public assistance.

But I-1433 fails to recognize the differences in local economies and costs of living throughout the state. We cannot recommend that voters adopt it.

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