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Low Wage Workers Deserve More: Senator Rubio Doesn’t

By Robby Stern 

I think of our foster daughter as the debate over the $15 minimum wage rages. Hodaviah lives with my wife, Dina, my 89 year old father-in-law, Mordy, and me. She is almost 24. She is an asylum immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo who has known great hardship in her young life. She speaks three languages: Lingala, French and English. She is hard working, spirited and very determined. She received a B.A. degree from Seattle University as part of the Foster Scholars program. She is a Certified Nurses Assistant and has taken the pre-requisites to become an R.N.

Working full time at an assisted living facility, she earns more than the state minimum wage, but quite a bit less than $15 per hour. Despite working hard, she does not have sufficient income to live on her own and also pay for her looming educational expenses. The $15 minimum wage would help her enormously.

Hodaviah is one of the reasons I feel so ambivalent about the proposal from the Mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee. After listening to the debate, I decided to support the proposal because I believe it would be an advance for minimum wage workers, although not of much immediate assistance to Hodaviah, as she hopes to enter nursing school in the fall of 2014 or early in 2015. I am clear that Hodaviah deserves $15 per hour. She delivers compassionate and very competent care. (She volunteered to assist Imogene Williams in caring for Will Parry and also cared for my father-in-law when he had heart surgery).

A majority of people in our community and country do not get the compensation they deserve. (And some people get way more than they deserve!!) We sometimes need to embrace advances, even if they are not as much as we hoped.

However, Mayor Murray delivered what seemed like a gut punch. It was reported in an article in the Seattle Times that the Mayor would support a “training wage” as part of the minimum wage proposal, despite the “training wage” not being a part of the final negotiated proposal from the Advisory Committee. Perhaps most difficult to swallow, the article reported that the city would assist Seattle employers in their petitions to L & I to pay a training wage. In a subsequent statement by the Mayor on his blog, he stated that “no ‘training wage’ is included in my proposal.” He went on to say, “A training wage is not something I endorse and is not part of this deal.”

What was going on? Evidently, the Mayor was referring to a provision in the state minimum wage law. That law contains a training wage provision that allows for a subminimum wage in very limited circumstances of special programs, and that exception would be in the proposal he submitted to the City Council. According to the Mayor’s blog, these exceptions are allowed after a “rigorous application process” to the Department of Labor & Industries (L & I). Such a petition from employers has been approved five times in five years.

The Advisory Committee and Mayor’s proposal did include a “temporary” tip credit and a temporary deduction from the minimum wage for employers who provide additional benefits like health care. This allowance is not allowed in state law. But given these deductions go away within several years, it was grudgingly accepted by Labor negotiators as necessary to reach a final agreement. The addition of the “training wage” provision has added a new negative piece to the proposal. The Mayor indicated in his statement that the Labor representatives on the Advisory Committee would have preferred no exceptions to allow subminimum wages.

I will wait and see the content of the final ordinance that passes the Seattle City Council. At the recent City Council hearing at Rainier Beach High School, I testified on behalf of PSARA after a vote by our Executive Board. I stated that PSARA will support the Advisory Committee’s proposal provided it is not weakened by City Council action.

Hodaviah and the hundreds of thousands of low wage workers in Seattle and throughout the country deserve better. I have decided to sign and urge others to sign the initiative now being circulated by $15 Now. We need a fall-back position if this legislative effort with the Mayor and the Seattle City Council goes awry. At the same time, it is preferable to accomplish the $15 minimum wage legislatively rather than engage in a risky and expensive initiative campaign – a campaign in which large business interests will pour millions of dollars to confuse voters and stem the national tide.

I still can support the recommendation of the Advisory Committee, although I would have liked it to be stronger. If it gets weakened and less protective of low wage workers, I want other options to be available.

He Is Serious 

Sen. Marco Rubio is considered a serious candidate in 2016 for the Republican nomination for President. We need to pay attention to what he says. Recently he announced his position on the nation’s retirement crisis. He wants to cut Social Security by raising the retirement age, thus forcing seniors to work even longer than they do now. In addition, he endorsed Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal to privatize Medicare and convert it to a voucher system where seniors would either purchase coverage from private insurers or purchase a modified Medicare plan. His proposal would result in millions of seniors paying more for coverage.

Of course there is a much more constructive approach. Scrap the Cap on Social Security premiums and Social Security is financially healthy for the remainder of this century.

Allow Medicare to provide coverage for everyone and authorize the Medicare system to negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies for the cost of prescription drugs. Medicare would become financially healthy for the rest of the century, and older workers would not have to hang on to jobs for health care coverage.

The problem with these reasonable proposals is that they do not serve Sen. Rubio’s corporate friends.

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