Minimum Wage Increases On the Ballot In Four States

Terrance Heath

There’s a lot more going on in this election than the presidential race between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump. Borne out of the dedication and hard work of activists, ballot initiatives give citizens the opportunity to vote directly on legislation and constitutional amendments at the state and local level, sometimes even bypassing the legislature.

This year, People’s Action affiliates in four states have seen their hard work pay off by successfully getting initiatives to increase the minimum wage on the ballot.

Arizona

In Arizona, voters will decide whether to pass The Fair Wages and Healthy Families Initiative. The ballot initiative, if passed, will raise Arizona’s minimum wage to $10 per hour in 2017, and gradually raise it to $12 by 2020. It also provides “earned paid sick time,” which workers can use if they or a family member gets sick, and prohibits retaliation against employees who use the benefit. The measure does, however, retain the state’s law on tipping, which allows employers to pay workers who receive tips up to $3.00 less than minimum wage.

According to Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families:

● A minimum wage worker in Arizona only earns $17,000 per year.
● More than half of minimum wage workers in Arizona are women.
● More than 27 percent of Arizona’s low-wage earners are parents.
● 45 percent of Arizonans don’t have access to earned sick days.

Those numbers tell the stories of people like Riann Norton, a single mother two, who often has to miss work in order to care for her chronically ill young daughter, or Iraq War veteran Luis Cardenas, who came home only to join the ranks of veterans struggling to meet their basic needs with low wages.

The measure is supported by a number of coalition partners, including Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), which is part of the Fight for $15 movement, and organized community members to petition fast-food chains like McDonald’s and grocery stores like El Super to pay their workers living wages.

Colorado

Colorado’s State Minimum Wage Amendment will raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.30 per hour effective January 1, 2017, and increase it by $0.90 every January, until it reaches $12 per hour in 2020. After 2020, the wage will be adjusted for increases in the cost of living. The law allows employers to pay employees who also make tips up to $3.02 less than minimum wage.

The Colorado People’s Alliance, which worked to get the initiative on the ballot, says that nearly half a million Coloradans will see their wages increase if the measure passes — including 263,000 women, or 22 percent of female workers in the state. One in five Coloradans would get a raise, and 86 percent of them will be adult workers over 20 years old. Currently in Colorado, full-time minimum-wage workers earn about $300 per week, or $17,000 a year.

According to a recent University of Denver study, increasing Colorado’s minimum wage would pump up to $400 million into the state’s economy and raise the standard of living for one in five households.

About 400,000 Colorado households, half of those families with children, will see higher incomes if the amendment passes.

Colorado’s minimum wage amendment currently holds a 13-point lead in the first publicly released poll on the proposal. Of likely 2016 general-election voters, 55 percent support the amendment, while 42 percent oppose it, and 3 percent remain undecided. That’s good news for workers like Marilyn Sorenson, a home health care worker who finds after more than 20 years, her paycheck hasn’t kept up with her basic expenses; and business owners like Vine Street pub owner Kevin Daily, who says that increasing the wage will boost productivity by lowering workers’ financial stress, and increase the number of people “with more money in their pockets so they can afford a beer and a meal.”

Maine

The Minimum Wage Increase Initiative, Question 4 on Maine’s state ballot this year, will increase the general minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020. The initiative also increases the wage for tipped workers from half of minimum wage to $5 an hour in 2017, then increases it by $1 every year, until it is equal to the general minimum wage by 2024.

Republican Governor Paul LePage joined business groups in an attempt to push a smaller wage increase through the state legislature. Republicans on the legislative budget committee took the budget hostage, saying they would only negotiate new spending if Democrats supported a smaller wage increase. However, none of the competing proposals passed the House, so there is no competing measure on the ballot.

According to a study by the nonprofit poverty relief group Oxfam, Maine has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the Northeast. “So 32 percent of Maine workers are currently paid less than $12 an hour,” says Mike Tipping of the Maine People’s Alliance. Neighboring states Vermont and New Hampshire came in at 26 and 24 percent, respectively.

Washington

Washington state’s Initiative Measure No. 1433 will increase the state’s minimum wage to $11 per hour in 2017, $11.50 in 2018, $12 in 2019, and $13.50 in 2020. The initiative will also require employers to provide paid sick leave and follow related laws. Washington’s Democratic governor Jay Inslee volunteered to help Raise Up Washington collect signatures for the initiative, and spoke out in favor of it:

“No one who works 40 or more hours a week should struggle to make ends meet,” Inslee said. “And no parent should have to choose between staying home to take care of a sick child or losing a paycheck. Initiative 1433 will lift up workers and families across this state and boost our local economies.”

Washington’s initiative will help women in two important ways. Women are the primary breadwinners in almost half of all households with children. But women make up 60 percent of minimum wage workers in Washington state. Women are also 10 times more likely to stay home with a sick child than their male partners.

If the initiative passes, women will earn more, and will no longer have to choose between their jobs and their families.

Other Initiatives

Increasing minimum wage isn’t the only progressive issue on the ballot this year:

● In Maine, Question 2 will create an additional 3 percent tax surcharge on incomes exceeding $200,000 per year. The revenue from the increase will be earmarked to help fund K–12 public education.

● In Howard County, Maryland, voters will decide if they want a citizen-funded campaign system, to boost the power of small, individual donations, and encourage more candidates to run without the burden of raising major funds. The initiative, Question A, is supported by Fair Elections Howard, Progressive Maryland, and other progressive organizations.

State and local progressive activists are leading the way and not waiting for Congress to act on important issues that impact America’s working families. As a result, this year’s election could yield a number of progressive victories.

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