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Fourth. Minimum wage.

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Jen partnered with Samin Dadelahi on this piece that posted Friday in WyoFile. Support civil civic discourse — donate to WyoFile today.

In Wyoming, there are two problems related to minimum wage. The first is the minimum wage itself.

Wyoming’s minimum wage is just $5.15 per hour. The federal minimum wage is stuck at $7.25 per hour — a rate that hasn’t been increased since 2009. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations points out that, had the federal minimum wage kept pace with workers’ productivity since 1968, the inflation-adjusted minimum wage would be $24 an hour.

Which is why a single person working full time for either the state or federal minimum wage cannot make ends meet in any of Wyoming’s 23 counties.

The Wyoming Women’s Foundation’s Self-Sufficiency Standard — which includes a calculator that accounts for family size and county of residence — demonstrates that self-sufficiency is unattainable for minimum-wage earners working full-time. The federal minimum wage is simply — and objectively — too low to meet basic needs.

Add a child to that family and there isn’t a single county in Wyoming where a parent could work full time even for the proposed minimum wage of $15 per hour and achieve self-sufficiency.

The second problem related to minimum wage is the one we often overlook: Nearly three out of four minimum-wage workers in Wyoming are women. Most of those women are supporting families.

This bears repeating: 75% of all minimum-wage workers in Wyoming are women, according to the latest data from the National Women’s Law Center.

Yet, when we talk about minimum wage in policy settings, in labor settings, in public settings of any kind, too often we conjure up the wrong image of a minimum-wage worker. We hear our elected officials say things like, “That’s what teenage boys earn flipping burgers at a summer job.” Or, worse still, “No one actually earns minimum wage.”

What — or, rather, who — gets lost in that story are the women who are working full time or often much more than full time, and who are still living in poverty because minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation.

Minimum wage has a long history of hurting women — especially women of color.

For at least the last 40 years, the majority of our nation’s minimum-wage workers have been women. The original labor reformers had a stated interest in keeping women, immigrants, indigenous and people of color out of the workforce. For women, this was couched in paternalism; reformers wanted to protect women’s “health and virtue.” In reality, they wanted to protect employment from women.

Today, these minimum-wage earners are the women caring for your children or your grandparents, cleaning your hotel room, checking you out in the grocery store and serving meals in the school cafeteria. These are women you see — or, more often, don’t see — who make the world run in ways big and small. They are the backbone of our Wyoming economy and they deserve to earn a living wage for their hard work.

First year Rep. Karlee Provenza brought a minimum wage bill, House Bill 206 – Wyoming minimum wage, to the legislative session. Despite the fact that leadership did not even bring it to the House floor for debate, the bill made a simple and elegant proposal that would have protected all of Wyoming’s workers — especially women.

The entirety of the bill reads:

Section 1. W.S. 27‑4‑202(a) is amended to read: 27‑4‑202. Minimum wage rates. (a) Every employer shall pay to each of his or her employees wages at a rate a minimum wage of not less than five dollars and fifteen cents ($5.15) fifteen dollars ($15.00) per hour. Section 2. W.S. 27‑4‑202(b) and (c) is repealed.

Section 1 of this very short bill says that the minimum wage would rise to $15.00 per hour.

More than 87,000 Wyoming workers earn less than $15.00 per hour right now and nearly 55,000 — or 62% — of those workers are women. Many of these jobs that pay less than a liveable wage are ones that were deemed essential during the pandemic — childcare, personal care aides, cashiers, stockers, order fillers, sales workers, truck drivers, medical assistants and nursing assistants, according to the 2020 Wyoming Kids Count Data Book.

Section 2 repeals the tipped minimum wage — the minimum wage given to tipped workers, which is a meager $2.13 per hour.

Repealing the tipped minimum wage matters because, while in many sectors lower wages for women are often a product of discriminatory employer practices, in the restaurant industry, lower wages for women are also set by law. Tipped servers, who are 71% female, experience almost three times the poverty rate of the restaurant industry workforce as a whole.

A 2018 report from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services showed that the fastest way to close Wyoming’s gender wage gap is to raise the minimum wage and eliminate the tipped minimum wage — both of which Rep. Provenza’s bill would have accomplished.

And why does closing the gender wage gap matter? Well, the same report showed that when working women get a raise, the reinvestment of those wages in local communities would likely create more than 600 new jobs thanks to $152 million in additional induced revenue and $5 million in tax dollars.

That’s a benefit for everyone in Wyoming. Not just women, not just families, not just low-wage workers, but everyone.

In spite of ample evidence about the positive economic impact of more money in the pockets of Wyoming workers, questions still come up. What about job growth? What about small businesses?

Studies have shown that even in a struggling economy, increasing the minimum wage doesn’t damage job growth. In fact, a landmark study found the opposite: employment increased, turnover decreased and consumer spending went up in tandem.

“We also find no evidence of disemployment when we consider higher levels of minimum wages,” wrote the authors of a 2019 study on the effects of minimum wage.

And a 2018 survey of more than 500 small business owners in the cities that were then on the cusp of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour found that nearly 70% of them supported the wage increase.

According to new research from the Congressional Budget Office, “In an average week in 2025, the $15.00 option would boost the wages of 17 million workers [and . . . the] number of people with annual income below the poverty threshold in 2025 would fall by 1.3 million.”

In New Mexico, where a minimum wage increase went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year, the governor’s team remarked, “This increase in the minimum wage will help hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans live better. Studies consistently show higher wages mean more children are healthier, do better in school and are less likely to be neglected or abused.”

Again, there is no faster way to close the gender wage gap or lift children out of poverty in Wyoming — and generate both revenue and budget savings — than raising the minimum wage.

Wyoming’s core values rest on the foundation of fairness and hard work. We pride ourselves on these values, but our failed policy doesn’t reflect that. It’s not fair to ask Wyoming’s workers to shore up our economy by working full time for a wage that won’t ever shore up their own futures, that won’t ever, no matter how many hours they put in, cover their monthly expenses.

The best fiscal solution is also the moral one: raise the minimum wage and give Wyoming workers a chance.


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