Wyoming's minimum wage law likely to stay on books

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

A state legislative panel that had proposed removing Wyoming’s minimum wage statute from the books may not ultimately recommend doing so after all, which is good news for anti-poverty crusaders.

The state’s minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, $2.10 lower than the federal minimum wage. But the state rate is rarely, if at all, paid. Companies that engage in interstate commerce have to pay the federal wage, said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, chairman of the Select Committee on Archaic Laws, which has been considering the issue, although Case doesn’t think it’s germane to the committee’s purpose.

The anti-poverty Equality State Policy Center would like the state to not only keep its minimum wage but to raise it. Yet Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said that she thought it will be unlikely in 2014. Connolly is the House minority caucus chairwoman.

In July, the committee voted for a proposal to strike Wyoming’s minimum wage statute, since lawmakers hadn’t found anyone who uses the law. However, Case said he will use his influence as chairman of the archaic-laws committee to make sure the state’s minimum wage isn’t included in a draft bill that would remove a slew of old, no-longer-needed laws about issues such as habitual drunkards or drunk barbers.

Case passionately believes that raising the minimum wage leads to job losses, but he thinks the minimum wage is a policy issue, not an archaic-law issue.

“I’m 100 percent sure we’re not going to include a repeal of Wyoming’s minimum wage” in the final archaic-laws bill, Case said. “This bill goes to Management Council, and Management Council is not going to approve it. It generated good discussion, however.”

The Management Council is the powerful committee made up of legislative leaders that sets priorities for the upcoming session. The council would veto the bill, Case said.

In 2012, about 4,000 Wyoming workers were paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, while another 5,000 Wyoming workers earned less, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study. Workers who get tips only need to receive a federal minimum of $2.13 an hour. Agricultural workers whose compensation includes housing also don’t have to receive the federal minimum wage, said David Bullard, a senior economist at the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.

News that the state minimum wage could stay intact delights Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center.

“We think the minimum wage law remains a valuable tool for the state to use,” he said. “We could choose to decide we are going to raise our state minimum wage above that of the federal government’s.”

If the state minimum wage were to jump above the federal minimum wage, Wyoming workers would have to earn the higher rate, Neal said.

Neal said that raising the state minimum wage would be a way to narrow the gender-pay gap in Wyoming, which is among the worst in the country. Neal said many Wyoming women earn the minimum wage. Some support families on it.

A higher state minimum wage would reduce poverty. Neal said that neither the federal nor state minimum wages have increased with inflation. People who earn it need to keep up with rising prices, he said.

But Case, who works as an economist outside of his duties at the Wyoming Legislature, said raising the minimum wage would increase employers’ expenses. That would cause business owners to find ways to decrease those expenses, usually by laying off workers, adding labor-saving machinery or by cutting employees’ benefits. Higher expenses also leads to a higher cost of finished products, Case said.

“When you start talking about a minimum wage, thinking about how you can cure social ills, you’re making a huge mistake and forcing people to lose jobs,” he said.

Yet Wyoming has the lowest minimum wage of the 45 states that have a state minimum wage. Five states do not have a state minimum wage, said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a staff attorney for the New York-based National Employment Law Project, which wants Wyoming to keep its minimum wage to protect any possible workers whose employers don’t engage in interstate commerce.

In 2014, the minimum wage in San Francisco will be more than twice of Wyoming’s: $10.74 an hour, according to data provided by NELP.

During the Seattle mayor’s race, one of the candidates, Ed Murray, said he would press for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, according to the Washington Post. Murray lost the election. Two Democrats, U.S. Rep George Miller of California and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, have introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 to raise the federal rate to $10.10 in three steps of 95 cents, then provide for automatic annual cost-of-living increases. The bill has been referred to the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Yet in Wyoming , the state rate will probably not increase in 2014, said Connolly, the Democratic leader in the Wyoming House.

The 2014 session is a budget session, which has a rule that each bill needs a two-thirds vote to be introduced and assigned a committee, Connolly said.

That’s a high threshold for an issue that hasn’t been discussed much in the halls of the Capitol in recent years. It will likely get pushback from employers and Republicans who believe wage increases cause more unemployment, and any bill supporters would have to be prepared with data showing its benefits, she said.

“That being said, I would hope that some advocacy groups work diligently over the next year, and get a bill with significant bipartisan support for introduction next year,” she said.