MINIMUM WAGE DEBATE: Enacting Senate Bill 39 is ‘too much, too soon’

Several constituents have asked why I voted “not voting” on SB 39, the minimum wage bill recently passed by the Senate. I would like to explain my vote.

SB 39 passed the Senate by a vote of 11 yes, 8 no, 1 not voting and 1 absent. I was the one who voted “not voting.” Under Senate rules, a “not voting” vote has the same impact as a “no” vote. The bill needed 11 yes votes to pass, which it did receive.

The bill now goes to the House, where it may be taken up as early as March 8, when the General Assembly reconvenes after our break for budget development.

Unlike some senators who voted “no” on SB 39, I do not oppose the concept of a minimum wage. In fact, I voted “yes” on the 2014 minimum wage increase, the only other time the issue has been voted on since I have been in the Senate. But, I do have a conception of what a “minimum wage” represents, or should represent, different from some others who have opined on the issue. That difference is one of the reasons for my “not voting” for this bill.

Sen. Brian Bushweller

Sen. Brian Bushweller

Some believe the minimum wage should be more like a “living” wage, meaning a wage that may be low but is, nonetheless, a wage on which a person could support him or herself and perhaps a family, as well, for an entire working lifetime.

But, that is not my conception of the minimum wage. I believe the minimum wage is an entry-level wage, a wage appropriate for low-skilled workers. It is a wage any amount below which would shock the conscience or be unacceptable no matter what the relevant circumstances may be. It is not intended to provide full support for all the costs associated with raising a family. Those jobs require more training and education.

I believe it’s also important to remember that the minimum wage mandates a wage without regard to the individual circumstances of the employer, without regard to the financial health or profitability of their particular business. I’m sure there are some employers who could absorb SB 39 with only minor adjustments. But, I’m equally sure there are others for whom it could be a deal breaker. For those employers who could not absorb the increase, it is not only the business owners who would suffer, but the employees, as well.

Over the years, when the General Assembly has considered increases in the minimum wage, all the relevant circumstances were considered and discussed, including factors like current economic conditions, the overall business climate, the length of time since the last increase, new regulatory requirements, other wage increases, and so forth. On the basis of all the relevant factors, prudent decisions were made and the minimum wage was increased by reasonable amounts.

One of the factors in those decisions was the simple reality that if government mandates a wage that is more than a job is worth, sooner or later, one way or another, that job will be gone.

But, SB 39 does not follow the historic pattern.

For example, in 2007 the minimum wage was set at $6.65 per hour, a 50-cent increase from $6.15 set in 2000. That equates to an increase of about 8 percent over the sevenyear period. In 2014, the minimum was set at $7.75, a 60-cent increase from $7.15 set in 2008. That is about 8.4 percent over six years. (This is the increase for which I voted “yes”.)

If SB 39 is enacted, the wage will be set at $8.75 in 2017, a 50-cent increase from $8.25 set in 2015. That is about 6 percent over two years. And then, the wage will go up another 50 cents each ensuing year until 2020, resulting in an increase of nearly 25 percent over five years.

SB 39 mandates far greater increases over a shorter period of time than we have historically enacted — increases many Delaware businesses may be unable to absorb. And, by scheduling annual increases four years into the future, it mandates those increases irrespective of any of the factors the General Assembly has customarily considered in past increases.

It is important to note that Delaware provides workers and students many opportunities to train for jobs that are worth more than minimum wage. In partnership with the federal government, we have job training programs available across the state. Almost every public high school offers vocational training programs, in addition to our comprehensive vocational and technical high schools in each county.

DelTech is well recognized for its relevant training for jobs that are in demand here in Delaware. With our Inspire and SEED scholarship programs, Delaware high school graduates can go to DSU, DelTech or UD tuition-free for the first three years. In fact, more of Delaware’s students are applying to college than ever before. The private sector and many labor unions offer training for jobs far above minimum wage that are out there right now, waiting for applicants.

Looking at all the issues, when the roll was called on SB 39, I voted “not voting.” I concluded that while I support the concept of the minimum wage and while I voted “yes” on the last increase in the minimum wage, I believe SB 39 is too much, too soon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sen. Brian J. Bushweller of Dover, a Democrat, represents the 17th Senatorial District (Camden, Dover, Wyoming and surrounding unincorporated areas) in the Delaware General Assembly.

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