Minimum wage hike bill advances, but critics say it’s still not enough

The measure would raise the wage to $13 in 2024.
Updated: Feb. 21, 2020 at 9:35 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A bill to hike Hawaii’s minimum wage is moving to the full house, but critics say it still falls short of what a person needs to live in the 50th state.

Even the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism says so, according to those critics.

“According to DBEDT, somebody in 2020 who’s single with no children needs over 17 dollars an hour to be self-sufficient. So our own state is telling us it’s 17 dollars or more in 2020,” said Nicole Woo, senior policy analyst with the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

The bill approved by the house Finance and Labor committees would raise the wage from the current $10.10 an hour to $11 in 2021, $12 in 2022, $12.50 in 2023, and $13 dollars in 2024.

“If it takes 17 dollars an hour just to survive and everyone agrees that it does, then why aren’t we requiring employers to pay it?” asked the Rev. David Gerlach. He’s the rector at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Palama, which is surrounded by lower income residents.

“I have a neighborhood where I have working dads, full time, raising two kids, living in ten foot by ten foot apartments, and they’re paying 750 dollars a month for that, and they’re still not getting by full-time,” said Gerlach.

But lawmakers say pushing the minimum wage too high could have a negative impact on businesses -- and workers.

“We’re worried that employers may react by then counter-productively reducing an employee’s hours, or potentially reducing their benefits,” said state Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, who chairs the House Labor and Public Employment Committee.

Johanson also stressed that some of those benefits are available only to workers in Hawaii.

“In no other sate in the union are employers in the private sector mandated to fully cover a worker’s health care insurance premium, and that’s a great benefit. It’s the financial underpinning of our system,” he said.

Woo countered that the last big minimum wage hikes in Hawaii between 2015 and 2018 didn’t have a negative impact on local business.

“It went from $7.25 to $10.10, and during that time our unemployment rate dropped to record lows, the lowest in the country. And we also added a lot of jobs in the restaurant sectors.-- for example -- which is one of the sectors that’s really affected by the minimum wage,” said Woo.

The measure has the support of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, which has opposed several previous minimum wage hike proposals. That’s because the bill also includes tax relief measures, including making the state earned income tax refundable and permanent, and increasing the refundable food/excise tax credit.

“It would be up to 70-plus million dollars of new additional tax relief for working class individuals and working class families," said Johanson. "So this is not just the minimum wage worker. This is a lot of middle class families that are struggling.”

Gerlach says, however, that increasing the minimum wage could decrease costs elsewhere.

“If you’re running something called a business, and you can’t afford to pay your workers a liveable wage, you don’t have a business, you have a hobby,” he said. “And taxpayers shouldn’t be supporting those hobbies through welfare and food stamps and things of that nature,"

""I can understand that people would like it to be higher, but 13 dollars is still an increase over what it is now," said Johanson.

The measure now heads to the full house for consideration.

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