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Group backs initiative to hike minimum wage

May 14, 2019

The state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is the same amount set by the federal government, which has not changed in nearly a decade.

But one Boise-based group, Idahoans for a Fair Wage, has organized a campaign that aims to do what the Legislature has not and has a plan to increase the state’s minimum wage to $12 per hour over a four-year period.

Democratic activist Rod Couch, 61, of Boise, who leads the movement, discussed a ballot initiative process with campaign volunteers at the Bannock County Democratic office inside the Elks Lodge in Pocatello earlier this month.

“The Legislature hasn’t done anything to address the state’s minimum wage in 10 years,” Couch said to the volunteers during the meeting.

“That’s why we think we need to have a citizens initiative. Sometimes the Legislature isn’t interested in addressing the problems of its constituents, but we’re talking about people that are really languished, and I don’t think that is too strong of a term. I think they are truly suffering to make ends meet, to put food on the table and to purchase health insurance.”

Idahoans for a Fair Wage received the green light to start collecting signatures after Idaho Secretary of State Lawrence Denney approved the language for the initiative in late April. The group has until April 30, 2020, to circulate petitions and gain the signatures of 55,057 registered voters — which is equal to 6 percent of the qualified electors across 18 legislative districts at the time of the November 2018 general election.

If proponents meet their goal, the measure will appear on the November 2020 ballot.

“It’s important that we are well informed and know the pros and cons of the issue,” Couch said. “Idaho continues to sport one of the lowest minimum wages in the nation, which at $7.25 is a poverty wage.”

To help other volunteers understand the issue as they knock on doors and distribute petitions, Couch, who also helped the successful campaign to pass Medicaid expansion on the ballot last November, provided statistics gathered from several sources, including the Economic Policy Institute, Bureau of Labor Statistics and Oxfam America.

“The average age of minimum wage workers is 35 and 37 percent of them are 40 years of age or older, 43 percent of them have gone to college, and 10 percent have a college degree,” Couch said citing the Economic Policy Institute. “Yet in Idaho, our government believes they are less valuable than people in Oregon and Washington doing the same work. If the government can’t figure out a solution, we the people must step up.”

Idaho is one of 12 states that adheres to the federal minimum wage limitations. That means someone working 40 hours a week on a minimum wage salary for every week of the year would earn $15,080. The national poverty line for a family of two people is $16,020.

Couch said that over 216,000 people in Idaho fall under the poverty line.

In citing Oxfam America, Couch said, “Idaho now leads the nation in the highest percentage of workers who make $12 an hour or under with 39.6 percent, or about 250,000 Idahoans.”

He added, “There is also a gender gap in pay, too, of 75 cents an hour in Idaho, which is one of the highest in the nation. On that note, 47.7 percent of female workers included in that group would benefit from this initiative. That’s a little over 142,000 women.”

There are several exceptions to Idaho’s $7.25 minimum wage, or $3.35 minimum wage per hour for tipped employees, which include variations in the amount employers can pay new and young employees.

Employers can pay new employees who are younger than 20 a training wage of $4.25 per hour for the first 90 days they are employed. They can also pay full-time high school or college students 85 percent of the minimum wage, $6.16 per hour, if they work fewer than 20 hours each week in certain conditions, such as work-study programs at colleges.

And in 2016, the House passed a bill that barred local governments from raising the minimum wage via ordinances or ballot initiatives.

The ballot initiative would eliminate the varying pay provisions and allow individual municipalities to raise its minimum wage on a regional scale.

In addition to raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour for non-tipped workers, Idahoans for a Fair Wage aims to increase the $3.35 per hour minimum wage of tipped workers to $8.10 over a series of annual increases over four years.

“In 1968, the federal minimum wage was $1.60 an hour. That is now worth $11.81,” Couch said. “Idaho’s minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for the last 10 years, and the Idaho Legislature has failed to increase it or even hold public hearings about the problem, despite three bills introduced to raise the minimum wage over the last five years.

”Don’t you think it’s time we do something about this?”

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