A bid to slice the minimum wage for some young workers hit a speed bump Monday as some lawmakers questioned its legality.
The Senate Rules Committee put off discussion of HB 2523 for at least a week after Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said the changes sought could run afoul of a key provision of the Arizona Constitution. That language generally bars lawmakers from tinkering with anything approved by voters.
That is the same argument that Democrats have been making since Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, has been pushing his bill. But so far their concerns have gone unheeded as the Republicans control both the House, where it already has been approved, and the Senate where it awaits action.
It isn’t just Farnsworth, though, who is raising the issue.
Senate President Karen Fann, said she agrees with the concept of what Grantham seeks to do. In fact, the Prescott Republican, who owns a construction firm, questioned the whole concept of a government-imposed minimum wage.
But Fann said there are sufficient legal questions on HB 2523 to require further study.
That study, she said, should be within the Rules Committee which is charged with ensuring that all measures are constitutional and in proper form for consideration. Every measure must go through that committee before it can go to the floor for debate.
The 2016 initiative, approved on a 58-42 percent margin, immediately raised the minimum wage from $8.05 an hour to $10. Provisions within the measure automatically boosted that to $11 now, with it set to go to $12 next year.
Grantham has argued that the increased burden on employers, particularly small firms, has resulted in them hiring fewer workers. And he said the jobs most likely to be cut are those that would be filled by young people looking for their first employment experience.
HB 2523 would carve out an exception for full-time students younger than 22 working part-time jobs, allowing companies to pay them as little as the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Grantham contends that doesn’t run afoul of the 2016 ballot measure because it doesn’t actually amend that language but simply creates another class of “youth workers” to whom the law would not apply.
Anyway, he argued, the initiative was never intended to apply to young people, pointing out the measure was dubbed the “Fair Wages and Healthy Families Act,” suggesting that means it was meant to help those who are supporting families.
Fann said, though, that the language of the House-passed measure appears based on the contention that a lot of students who are younger than 22 don’t have anyone else to support.
“Well, I know a lot of 18- to 22-year-olds that do have a family or kids,” she said.
“And these are also the kids that are trying to put themselves through college,” Fann continued. “So I have a hard time trying to take money away from them if they’re truly trying to pay their way through school.”
Fann isn’t the first person to point up that issue.
Last week Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, said the only way he will support the measure – assuming it gets to the full Senate – is if the measure is amended to drop the link between wages and whether someone is in school, replacing it with a test of whether someone is financially independent.
There is another option for supporters of a sub-minimum wage for young people if it turns out there is a conflict between HB 2523 and the constitutionally protected 2016 voter-approved minimum wage hike: Take the issue to voters.
Fann said if that is the chosen path she would specifically like to ask voters to rescind one provision which allows local governments to impose their own minimum wages, higher than the state mandate.
She specifically complained about the fact that Flagstaff voters approved their own minimum wage ordinance, one that already requires employers there to pay workers at least $12 an hour. That law also will boost the minimum to $13 next year and $15 the year after.
“What happens if we have 91 cities and towns passing their own minimum wage, their own benefit packages, much less 15 counties,” Fann said. “How does anybody do business in Arizona with such a convoluted pay scale?”
She also said it’s a question of fairness.
“You have a McDonald’s on this side of the street and a McDonald’s on this side and they’re in two different jurisdictions,” Fann said.
“And the employee over here is getting paid $2 more than this person over here?” she continued. “What’s fair about that?”
Fann said she sees that in her role running a construction company.
“I work all over the state of Arizona,” she said.
“How do I explain that to my employees, that if you are working in the city of Flagstaff this is what your wage is going to be, but if you’re working for Coconino County on a job, that’s a mile outside (the city limits) that, no, you don’t get paid the same amount?”
And what of the possibility of paying all her workers more than the minimum?
“I know,” Fann said. “And then I’d probably go out of business.”