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Raising minimum wage discussed: Legislative committee holds hearing in Willmar as part of effort to get feedback

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, second from left, speaks Thursday to a group on the topic of living wage jobs during a legislative hearing at the Health and Human Services Building in Willmar. Also pictured are Sen. Lyle Koenen, left, Rep. Mary Sawatzky and Matthew Bergeron, committee administrator. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — Conflicting opinions about why the state’s minimum wage should or should not be raised were expressed Thursday at a legislative hearing in Willmar.

On one side was information prepared by the House of Representative’s bipartisan Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs about the state’s job history and trend for an increasing number of low-wage service jobs.

Minnesotans are working, but they are “just not making very much money,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who is chairman of the committee.

On the other was the argument that government should not tell businesses what to do and that “unintended consequences” of raising the minimum wage could upset an economic balance of what businesses can afford to pay employees and charge customers.

Missing from the discussion were employees who are currently working at minimum wage jobs.

Also missing was most of the committee.

Made up of four DFLers and three GOP House members, the committee has been traveling the state to get feedback on a proposal to increase the minimum wage. But Winkler was the only member of the committee in Willmar, although Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, and Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, attended the hearing.

The GOP members of the committee typically have not attended committee meetings outside the Capitol, said Winkler.

That’s why he was glad that so many local individuals, including several who introduced themselves as conservatives, shared their opinions.

But even Winkler was surprised with the level of conservative views expressed in Willmar about increasing the minimum wage.

“It’s more of a conservative voice than we’ve heard in other areas,” said Winkler in a brief interview. “They’re more skeptical of what state government can do to help improve wages for low-income people, or get more people off of public programs and into a job that pays enough to support their families,” he said.

“That’s why we’re here. To hear different points of view,” said Winkler.

Alex Marcus, of Willmar, was critical of the minimum wage proposal and the committee’s report, which he called “big propaganda” with a “serious slant” to the left side of the political spectrum.

“This is a sales pitch,” said Marcus, who said increasing the minimum wage would result in a decrease of jobs. “Stop creating job-killing laws,” he said.

Winkler countered that peer-reviewed analysis of the data indicates increasing the minimum wage does not result in job loss.

He said low-income workers who get a bump in pay usually spend that money, which is circulated quickly into the local economy and offsets the business impact of higher wages.

Bonnie Wilhelm said raising the minimum wage would mean job loss for developmentally disabled individuals, like her brother.

She also said the minimum wage is designed to give teens entry-level jobs and that kids will not have opportunities for career exploration if the wage is raised and becomes attractive to adults.

But Winkler said adults who lost high-paying industrial jobs during the recession are already working at those minimum-wage jobs to support their families. Many are working several part-time, minimum-wage jobs and still qualify for some forms of public assistance, he said.

Jason Haug, with Heartland Community Action Agency, said he sees low-income families every day that live out the reality of the numbers and graphs in the committee’s data.

The information about poverty and low-wage jobs is “nothing new” as people make “tough choices” between paying for housing, food, clothing and medications, said Haug.

Winkler said it takes two adults to each make $14 an hour to support a family of four in Minnesota, yet 40 percent of all jobs in the state pay less.

The current minimum wage in Minnesota is $6.15 an hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

The Legislature is expected to take up a proposal in January to increase the wage to $9.50 an hour.

Winkler said there is some “common ground” on the issue and compromise will be needed for a bill to pass.

He said comments by Willmar businessman Dave Baker are the kind of “healthy perspective” needed to reach an agreement.

Baker, who is in the hotel and restaurant industry, testified that he does not oppose increasing the minimum wage but asked that the Legislature consider not applying it to tipped workers.

Baker said he pays his servers minimum wage but they typically make $14 to $17 an hour when tips are included.

Baker said 92,000 Minnesotans are currently making minimum wage and that 42,000 are tipped employees that are “making really good money.” He said legislators shouldn’t be “lazy” and approve a wage increase without looking at creative options and listening “to the people that sign the front of checks, like me.”

He also said a “youth” minimum wage could be set at a lower level for 16- to 17-year-olds.

Winkler said later that the state currently has a 90-day minimum wage rate for teens and it is reasonable to ask for that program to continue.

Before the minimum wage issue is brought to the Legislature, Winkler said there will be more field hearings as well as an examination of whether business subsidies bring the “right kind of jobs” to the state, what impact unions have on wages, the effect temporary work is having and a review of the unemployment insurance system.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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