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Minimum wage hike plays key role in 2014 election

4:13 PM, Jan 19, 2014   |    comments
Amber Westfall, an employee at The Filling Station in Comstock Park.
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(Kathleen Gray/Gannett Michigan) - Raising Michigan's $7.40-an-hour minimum wage is becoming a key rallying point in the upcoming elections - with many Democrats and organized labor in favor, while many Republicans and the state Chamber of Commerce oppose the effort.

It was the first policy platform announced by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer, who is calling for a boost in the minimum wage to $9.25 an hour.

"It's morally wrong for families who are working full time to be raising children in poverty. These are people who are putting money directly back into the economy," he said. "It's the right thing to do, the economics work and it's wildly popular with the public."

In addition, a coalition of groups representing workers is in the final stages of deciding whether to embark on a ballot proposal for November that would raise the minimum wage to more than $9 an hour.

"Working families who are struggling in Michigan shouldn't have to wait for a ballot initiative that our leaders in the Legislature and Congress should be doing," said Frank Houston, director of the Restaurant Workers Operating Center, part of a coalition looking at a minimum wage proposal. "We're reviewing the viability of doing a ballot initiative right now and we'll be making a decision soon."

Depending on the type of ballot proposal, the coalition would have to gather 258,088 to 322,609 signatures to get the issue on the ballot. Michigan last saw its minimum wage rate hiked in 2008 when it went from $7.15 to $7.40.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.6 million people in the United States make at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

The minimum wage debate has been raging across the nation as fast-food workers have staged protests calling for pay hikes. Several states and cities have increased their rates well above the federal level of $7.25, and at least four more states are gathering signatures for ballot proposals on the issue for 2014.

David Miller, 21, of Detroit makes less than $15,000 a year from his $7.40 per hour job at McDonald's.

"I'm not making enough money to pay my bills or maintain my household," said Miller, who splits the rent in his apartment with his sister. "I know that there are few proposals in mind out there, but I just want it to be increased and I need it to happen now."

A ballot proposal may be the only way to get a minimum wage hike passed in Michigan. Three proposed bills that would raise the wage to either $9 or $10 an hour by 2016 have languished in the Legislature since being introduced by Democrats in early 2013.

Ari Adler, spokesman for Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, said there's little appetite for the issue.

"Any discussion about minimum wage has to include the impact on job providers and workers," he said. "If the minimum wage is artificially increased, you have business not being able to hire as many workers, or cutting back on the number of workers they have."

State Rep. Jon Switalski, D-Warren, is one of the sponsors of the wage hike legislation. Since he said he has no illusions that it will be taken up in the Republican-controlled Legislature, he would welcome a ballot initiative on the issue.

"This would help folks out immensely, as well as taxpayers who wouldn't have to pick up the tab for things like Medicaid and food assistance," he said.

Strong voices are assembled against any hike, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which has said it will strongly resist any pay increase.

"It would place Michigan's minimum wage at one of the highest in the nation," said Wendy Block, a lobbyist on workplace issues for the chamber.

"We're one of 19 states that have higher rates than the federal rate. We believe Michigan is already competitive in this area."

While the intent of raising the rate is meant to help workers, Block said it would force business owners to cut back on the number of employees.

"Our members are just trying to hold on tight and starting to feel good about the direction of the economy," Block said.

"But they're concerned about the costs associated with Obamacare. Add in an increase to the minimum wage and that would be a recipe for disaster for the state."

Gov. Rick Snyder said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press on Friday that he's open to having a public discussion about the issue, but he'd rather concentrate on bringing higher-paying jobs to the state and providing training for people who are making minimum wage so they can qualify for jobs with higher pay.

"My focus has been more on overall job creation, and job creation above the minimum wage," he added. "The issue you have is that for a lot of young people, it's their first job. Are you going to change the employment dynamic if you change the minimum wage?"

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