An amended bill to exempt workers under the age of 19 from the coming minimum wage hikes approved by voters last November passed out of a House committee Tuesday evening.
The bill is one of two sponsored by Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Elm Springs) to undo substantial portions of the wage hikes. In 2018, 68 percent of Arkansas voters backed a ballot initiative to increase the state minimum wage to $9.25 in 2019, $10 in 2020 and $11 in 2021. Lundstrum’s HB 1753, passed by a voice vote by the Public Health Committee, would freeze the minimum wage at $9.25 for anyone under the age of 19, blocking the raises to $10 and $11. There was no discussion or questions from committee members and no audible opposition. The vote took place at around 5:30 p.m., prompting renewed criticism from minimum wage advocates that the controversial bill should have been given a special order of business to allow the public to respond.
Another bill sponsored by Lundstrum, HB 1752, would exempt the following employers from the coming wage hikes: businesses with fewer than 20 employees, nonprofits with an operating budget under $1 million and certain nonprofits that provide services for people with developmental disabilities. That bill must still return to committee after being amended on March 14.
Kristin Foster, campaign manager for Arkansans for a Fair Wage, the committee that backed the 2018 ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage, testified against HB 1753 at Tuesday's meeting. “I traveled around the state talking to people who were going to be impacted by the minimum wage increase,” Foster said. “We heard from people from all ages, and different family compositions, about what the minimum wage increase would mean to them.” Foster said that in her work as the director of a child hunger agency, she “saw teenagers across the state who helped pay essential bills in their household … and helped support their families.”
Foster added, “We also know that voters approved this initiative for all workers. I believe that if a worker is showing up and doing their job, they deserve to be paid equally with their peers at the same job.”
Lundstrum told the committee that workers under the age of 19 would not be able to compete in the job market if the minimum wage was raised for them. “I want to see these kids get a shot at getting a first-time job,” she said. “I think this will help that opportunity happen for those young people.”
Both HB 1752 and HB 1753 originally passed out of the Public Health committee on a voice vote on March 12, after 6 p.m. at a sparsely attended meeting. Critics at the time said that better notice should have been provided. "No one spoke against these highly controversial bills because no one knew they would run," the advocacy group Citizens First Congress stated in a press release the following morning. David Couch, the Little Rock attorney who drafted the ballot initiative for the wage hike, called that quickie evening vote "a sneak attack and an ambush."
Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Citizens First Congress, said that the vote Tuesday was more of the same, dodging public accountability by running the bill at the end of the day, buried in a packed agenda, rather than as a special order of business with a set time. (Couch agreed, and said that Foster was in attendance because she happened to have a meeting at the Capitol and decided to stay in the committee all afternoon just in case.)
Lundstrum said there was no reason for a special order of business. "This was an amendment to a bill that had already passed," she said. "I had waited my turn on the agenda just like everyone else."
The original versions of the bills that passed the House committee earlier this month would have eliminated the state minimum wage altogether for those exempted, leaving them subject only to the federal minimum wage of $7.25, according to labor law experts. Lundstrum had testified otherwise to the committee. After initially disputing that the bills needed alteration on this issue, she eventually amended both to ensure that they would in fact freeze the wage at the current $9.25 for those exempted. In addition, she also reduced the age threshold on HB1753: The version previously passed by the committee exempted workers under 20 years old; the amended version passed this evening exempts workers under 19.
There is already a provision under current law allowing employers to pay full-time students attending an accredited institution of education in the state 85 percent of the minimum wage if they are employed to work 20 hours per week or less when school is in session or 40 hours per week when school is not in session (that would be $8.50 in 2020 or $9.35 in 2021). In practice, this provision, which requires a waiver from the Department of Labor, has been little used, impacting only around 60 workers in the state. Lundstrum's bill would eliminate such waivers and simply impose the $9.25 minimum wage for anyone under 19 years old.
Ever since she filed the bills earlier this month, Lundstrum has insisted that her aim is not to undo the will of Arkansas voters. "The people voted to have a minimum wage increase," she said. "I'm not trying to thwart that." She said that her goal in nixing the wage hikes that voters approved was to protect nonprofits, small businesses and teenage employees from "unintended consequences."
Lundstrum acknowledged that the coming wage hikes were approved by a two-thirds majority, but argued that her bills would not "roll back" the will of the voters. "We're not rolling anything back," she said. "That's what the people passed. I'm not taking that back — I think that would be wrong. It would not roll up [for the exempted groups]. It would not roll up to $10 and $11."
Couch countered that in fact raising the minimum wage up to $11 by 2021 is precisely what the people passed.
"This is what the people voted for," Couch said. "This is what the people intended. These bills roll back what voters passed. Those people are entitled under the law to a raise January of next year, and a raise January of the following year. This would take that away from them."
When they were first passed out of committee on March 12, the bills faced heated opposition. A "Rally to Protect the Wage" was organized by advocacy groups at the Capitol. The Democratic Party of Arkansas held a press conference, where chairman Michael John Gray said, “We can’t start a trend of letting people in a marble building in Little Rock overturn the will of 68 percent of Arkansas voters.”
At around the same time, at a luncheon held by the Political Animals Club in Little Rock, Governor Hutchinson announced that he opposed the legislative efforts to alter the minimum wage passed by voters. "This is an act of the will of the people of Arkansas, and I do not believe it should be changed by legislative action," he said. The Republican Party of Arkansas also issued a statement in opposition to the legislation, stating, "We respect the will of the people and their majority vote."
Lundstrum was unbowed. "The voters didn’t want to hurt those small business or their nonprofits," she said. "They only had one button to push. Trust me, Arkansas people are good." She said that nonprofits and small businesses that she had been communicating with had been expressing worry about the coming wage hikes. "They are scared," she said.
Lundstrum said that she was not planning to run HB1753 on the House floor tomorrow but it could run later this week. HB 1752, as amended, could be up for re-approval in committee this week.
"The voters spoke," Lundstrum said earlier this month in describing her aims. "I'm not trying to do anything radical or scary or thwart the will of the people. That's not my intention at all."
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.