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Under-explored stories on the minimum wage debate

September 12, 2016

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Minimum wage increases are spreading across the U.S., with four more states including public referendums on the ballot this November. However, hidden beneath these gains are three surprising stories about groups whose wages have stalled and may even be dropping.

Youth minimum wage exceptions and decreases

There has long been a federal exception to the minimum wage that allows employers to pay workers under age 20 as little as $4.25 for their first 90 days on the job. Now in response to increases for the rest of the public, some see merit in making this youth exception permanent. Minnesota recently folded a youth sub-minimum wage, which allows minors to be paid $1.25 less than adults, into their new law. Variations of unlimited sub-minimum youth wages are on the books in Illinois, Colorado and New Mexico. Enter South Dakota, where there is a measure on the November ballot to lower the youth minimum wage by 75 cents. Teenagers have been disproportionately affected by higher wage laws because young, inexperienced workers are often the first to be let go by cost-cutting businesses. Proponents of the new law say a lower youth wage will offset this employment drop. One vocal supporter, Preston Cole, published an informative Manhattan Institute Report detailing merits of an unlimited extension of the $4.25 youth training wage. Those against the ballot measure say it is unjust to discriminate wages based on age. If there is youth sub-minimum wage or a movement to introduce it near you, this volatile issue could make for a great story.

Low wages for people with disabilities

Fresh legislation on this issue has been springing up on the state level, with new laws in New Hampshire and Maryland closing loopholes that allow people with disabilities to be paid less than the minimum wage. This exception, provision 14c of the Fair Labor Standards Act, was meant to give employers an incentive to hire people with disabilities. States are also pushing to shut down low-paying sheltered workshops, which many have come to view as unjust. Yet a George Washington study published last year highlighted problems in Maine’s push to end sheltered workshops following a 2008 integration law. According to the study, only one third of the former shelter workers found new jobs, and enrollment in disability care assistance programs increased by more than 500 percent. Mentions by both Democratic presidential primary candidates have helped bring this long debated issue into the spotlight again. Hillary Clinton has said that she would work towards this goal on a federal level if elected. Reporters can look at the legislation surrounding disability wages and sheltered workshops in their state, as well as gauging reactions to Clinton’s national plan.

All four states with minimum wage votes this November have bypassed legislature by initiating public referendums, but some citizens are denied this power. Half of the states in the U.S. do not have the right of public initiation, which means citizens cannot organize to put measures up for statewide public vote. Some of these states do have municipalities that can exercise initiation, but state legislators are taking action to curtail local minimum wage raises, lest businesses abandon those cities once a referendum is approved. In Ohio minimum wage votes are proceeding in Cincinnati and Cleveland despite warnings of a legal challenge from the Attorney General. Sixteen other states have passed laws prohibiting minimum wage changes from municipalities. Reporters can look into local laws to see what rights citizens have and interview local businesses to get their perspective.

Reporter’s Takeaways:

• Investigate local laws and ideas regarding youth subminimum wages to see if this national movement is affecting citizens near you.

• Disability wages and employment opportunity changes that are occurring at a state level may become national if Clinton is elected. Look into local views on this issue and see if any new legislation is in play.

• Find out how the legal battle over initiation and local wage control affects your town. Can locals act on raising the minimum wage if they desire and how do business feel about the issue.


  • Jenna Miller

    Jenna is a journalist and videographer residing in West Philadelphia. She’s previously worked for Delaware Online and the Salisbury Daily Times, both part of the USA Today Network. She aims to create thoughtful, community-centered work. Jenna graduat...

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