State minimum wage supporters to continue fight despite federal raise

By Dave Williams
Clayton Daily News, Jul 24 2007
ATLANTA — The federal minimum wage will increase on Tuesday for the first time in a decade, moving from $5.15 an hour to $5.85.

But advocates for low-wage workers in Georgia aren’t satisfied. They argue that the raise will leave behind workers in industries that are exempt from the federal minimum wage, from commercial fishermen along the coast to farm workers in South Georgia to home caregivers in metro Atlanta.

“There are broad categories of people not covered under the federal legislation who deserve a minimum wage,” said Matt Gewolb, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon, who introduced legislation this year to raise the minimum wage in Georgia.

“We obviously applaud what happened in Washington, but we’re going to keep advocating for a Georgia minimum wage.”

But the same pro-business forces that helped sink Brown’s bill this year are lining up to oppose it again in 2008, undaunted by what they see as a setback at the federal level.

“When you raise minimum wage rates and legislate that, you take the market factor out,” said House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island. “We don’t want to do that.”

Top priority

Democratic congressional candidates campaigned last fall on raising the minimum wage, and it was one of the top priorities for the new Democratic majority that took office in January.

Under legislation Congress passed last spring, the new minimum wage of $5.85 an hour will remain in effect for one year. It will increase again a year from now, to $6.55 an hour, then climb again to $7.25 in July 2009.

The raise is expected to boost the incomes of 12.5 million American workers at the bottom of the pay scale.

But the federal law excludes large groups of workers from minimum-wage provisions, including employees of seasonal amusement or recreational businesses, fishing operations and farms that employed fewer than 500 “man-days” of labor during the previous quarter.

The federal minimum wage also doesn’t apply to domestic service workers, including housekeepers, child care workers, chauffeurs and gardeners.

And a U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down just last month added another group to the list: home caregivers, whether employed by an agency or hired directly by families.

As a state minimum wage bill, Brown’s legislation and a similar measure introduced by House Democrats late in this year’s session would cover those groups.

Also, the state bills call for indexing the minimum wage, so it would increase along with inflation. The federal law does not feature an indexing provision.

Finally, the new federal law does not change the so-called “tip credit” — the base pay tipped workers receive — from $2.13 an hour. The state legislation calls for setting the tip credit at half of the minimum wage.

“For people who work at the high-end restaurants, it doesn’t make much difference,” said Cindia Cameron, co-chairman of the Georgia Minimum Wage Coalition. “But it would give people working for small tips some help.”

Opposition blunted

Cameron and others advocating for a state minimum wage say they expect less intense opposition to the legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes in January because the federal increase already will be in place.

But David Raynor, Georgia director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said his organization will be front and center to renew its fight against the bills.

He said the state chapter’s most recent membership survey found that 82 percent of the small businesses the NFIB represents in Georgia are opposed to increasing the minimum wage.

Historically, opponents have argued that raising the minimum wage does little for adults trying to support their families because most minimum wage earners are teen-agers and college students working part-time.

A study by the conservative Heritage Foundation found that 63 percent of minimum wage workers are part-timers.

What a higher minimum wage does do, according to its critics, is force owners of small businesses to leave jobs vacant that they would fill otherwise or even lay off current employees, including those relatively few adults who are working at the bottom of the pay scale.

“For every 10-percent increase in minimum wage, one study found an 8.5-percent increase in unemployment among adults who don’t have a high school diploma,” Raynor said.

Little impact

But the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an Atlanta-based think tank that advocates building a stronger social safety net, cited a study of states with a higher minimum wage than the federal standard that found little impact on employment.

“I think there’s a lot of hyperbole around the minimum wage.” said Sarah Beth Gehl, the institute’s executive director. “Most studies I’ve seen say if there is an effect, it’s minimal.”

Gewolb said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that Brown’s bill will make it through the Legislature next year, particularly now that the debate at the federal level is over. He pointed out that the Senate bill failed in the Insurance and Labor Committee this year by just one vote.

But Keen said he hasn’t noticed any change in how majority Republicans in the General Assembly view the minimum wage.

“I don’t see any of those type bills having much hope this session,” he said.