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Lay off wages


Going after minimum-wage earners isn't the answer to state's budget woes

The state Legislature should step away from efforts to water down a voter-approved ballot measure to raise the minimum wage and link it to inflation. Legislators' failure to deal with the state budget crisis has already hit lower-income families hard; now some propose to take money out of their paychecks as well.

Ballot Measure 25, approved by voters in November, raised the minimum wage from &

36;6.50 an hour to &

36;6.90. Equally important, the measure established an annual adjustment for the wage, tying it to the Consumer Price Index.

It's the latter piece of the measure that's now under attack by business lobbyists and conservative legislators. They say the annual increases unfairly penalize business owners and make Oregon businesses less competitive. They note that Oregon and Washington are ranked third and second respectively in the nation for highest minimum wage, and contend the two states' current levels of unemployment are linked to that.

We do have some concerns with the lack of any limit on wage increases tied to the CPI. In highly inflationary times, few businesses match the soaring rates with comparable raises. If they all did, it would only contribute to inflationary pressures. So we would not be opposed to some cap, say 4 or 5 percent, to protect businesses when inflation is extreme.

But those extremes are few and far between and we believe it's fair to link the minimum wage to the CPI in normal times. Most businesses do provide cost of living increases for workers and the modest amount of the increase is not an undue burden.

For example, if an employer had 10 minimum wage employees working 40 hours a week each and the CPI went up — percent, the cost to the employer would be &

36;80 a week total. An employer would have to have nearly 35 full-time minimum wage earners before the total increased cost equaled the weekly pay one of those workers. Since a number of those workers would likely receive some kind of pay increase anyway, the true cost to the business is even less.

Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner is among those arguing against the proposal to eliminate the annual adjustment. He debunks the belief that most minimum wage earners are teenagers. In fact, 73 percent of minimum-wage earners are 20 years old or older and a quarter of them are single parents.

Many of those minimum-wage earners are the same people affected by state budget cuts in health care and human services and increased costs for services such as community colleges. This measure, House Bill 2624, would hit them again.

The state has already shifted much of its budget crisis onto the backs of those least able to afford it. Legislators should not compound that by changing a fair minimum wage measure approved by voters only a few months ago.