The New Minimums

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by Joshua Green,

from Bloomberg Businessweek,

Minimum wages will rise in the 16 states and several cities over the next five years. Political pressure and different costs of living mean no two places are using the same strategy to phase in changes.

In the midterm elections, four red states—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota—passed minimum wage increases. Those votes mean that, starting next year, a majority of states will have minimum wages higher than the federal rate. The last time that happened, in 2007, Democrats newly in control of Congress used their power to pass the first national increase in a decade, from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. It’s extremely unlikely the Republicans who took back the Senate in the midterm elections will do the same. “Waiting for Congress to act is frustrating and, at this point, pointless,” says Ed Flanagan, a former Alaska labor commissioner who spent a year campaigning for his state’s new increase, from $7.75 to $9.75.

Already, labor organizers in Oregon are considering a ballot initiative for 2016 that would raise the state minimum to $15 an hour, matching the leap taken this year by Seattle and San Francisco. In Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti signed an ordinance mandating a $15.37 wage floor for some hotel workers in October, 6 of the 15 members of the city council have asked for a vote in early 2015 on a proposal to increase the city’s rate to $15.25 across the board by 2019.

Voters in most states shouldn’t expect to see pushes for higher rates than that anytime soon. Labor activists say they want to end the exclusion of tipped workers such as restaurant wait staff from minimum wage laws and add worker protections, like requiring employers to give workers advance notice of schedule changes or offer paid sick days. That approach worked this year in Oakland.

Not all the coming fights will be put directly to voters. In California, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown signed a compromise bill last year increasing the statewide minimum from $8 to $10 by 2016. Some Democratic state lawmakers say that’s not enough to help workers make ends meet.

In some cities, Democrats are pitting themselves against the Republicans who control their state governments. Louisville has held hearings about raising wages to $10.10 after a statewide increase died in the Republican-controlled state senate. City officials in other states are hamstrung by laws prohibiting municipal governments from raising minimum wages above state levels. In June, business-friendly Democrats in Rhode Island’s statehouse killed efforts by the Providence city council to raise hotel pay to $15 an hour with a budget rider barring cities from setting their own minimum wages.

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