By Howard Fischer - Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Claiming voters intended higher minimum wages only for families, Republicans in the state House voted Wednesday to allow employers to pay less to some people younger than 22.
On paper, HB 2523 given preliminary approval on a party-line vote, does not amend what was approved at the 2016 election by a 2-1 margin. That initiative took the minimum wage from $8.05 an hour to $11 now, going to $12 next year.
Instead, the proposal by Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, would create a new category of "youth employment'' in state labor laws. That would include anyone younger than 22 who also is a full-time student but works no more than 20 hours a week.
More to the point, the bill says that those who fit that new category are not covered by what voters approved. Instead, employers would be required to pay them only what is required by federal law, which is $7.25 an hour.
Grantham argued that means he's not trying to alter the 2016 initiative -- something that would require a three-fourths vote the GOP does not have -- but instead doing this in the interests of youth.
"We have close to a 12 percent youth unemployment,'' he said.
"Why do you not want young people to have a job?'' Grantham continued. "Why are you against somebody who's under 22 years old, who works less than 20 hours a week, who's going to school full, my child in high school, why are you against that person having a part-time job?''
Anyway, he contended, it was never the intent of voters to provide higher wages to part-time youth workers.
"Prop 206 was titled and advertised and got signatures based on the fact that it was for 'healthy families,' protecting our families, full-time individuals, working full time, earning the minimum wage, raising a family,'' Grantham said.
That drew an angry reaction from Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson. And she used Grantham's own argument that the bill was aimed at "healthy families'' against him.
"Somebody under 22 could have a family,'' she said. "People under 22 aren't necessarily full-time college students who are laying around on their parents' couch just working an odd job here and there.''
And she said there could be situations not only where someone as young as 17 is supporting a family but also teens who live with a single parent who has a part-time job to help pay the bills.
Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, warned of implications if the measure somehow gets enacted into law. Most significant, he said, is that the law would provide financial incentives for employers to replace the full-time employees they now have with younger part-time workers.
"I do not believe that will be the case,'' Grantham responded.
Rep. Richard Andrade, D-Glendale, said went a step farther.
"Let's call this bill what it actually is: discrimination,'' he said.
That brought an accusation from Grantham who charged that Andrade was violating House rules which prohibit lawmakers from ascribing motives to each other's actions.
"I've never done a discriminatory thing in my life,'' he said. "That hurts.''
But Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, pointed out that the legislation would lead to the situation where two part-time workers who are 18 years old, with the same experience, doing the same job, could be paid two different wages solely because one is going to school full time.
"This bill almost rewards individuals for not going to school,'' he said. "We should be wanting to promote education.''
Bolding also questioned whether employers could demand to see a student's official schedule to determine whether they were actually carrying a full course load and would have to pay them the state-imposed minimum wage.
But Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said what's in the legislation makes sense.
He told of learning that a third of the people who were working at a McDonalds in Globe are now out of work because of the higher wages the employer needs to pay its staff.
"And I think that's tragic,'' Finchem said. And he said that a lower wage for youths will help provide them the first opportunities to learn what work is all about and develop the right habits.
"We need to give our youth a foothold in the employment workplace,'' he said. "This is one small move towards that.''
But Rep. Raquel Teran, D-Phoenix, said the median income in her district is $29,000. She said the youths living in her district are not working just to get experience or to be an apprentice.
"They're working for survival,'' she said.
"They're working to provide the basic needs for themselves and their families,'' Teran continued. "And the notion that these students are not part of the working families makes no sense to me.''
Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, said his support of the Grantham legislation was on a more visceral level, saying the whole conversation about a state-imposed minimum wage amounted to socialism.
"When the government can set minimum wages they can set maximum wages,'' he said.
Fillmore, who owns a retail store in Mesa, also told colleagues that he does not have young people applying for jobs.
"And you know why?'' he continued. "Because out there they know that they can go on a social welfare system and not have to work.''
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said the real "salt in the wound'' of this legislation is that it would allow those in the new class of youth workers to be paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and not the $8.05 that was the state minimum wage before the 2016 initiative.
Grantham's argument that this does not alter or undermine what voters approved in 2016 got an argument from several Democrats.
They pointed out that the Arizona Constitution spells out that lawmakers cannot alter what voters have approved unless it "furthers the purpose'' of the underlying bill. And even in that case -- a point that the Democrats say is not the case -- such changes require a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate, meaning 45 representatives and 23 senators.
But Republicans who hold just a 31-29 edge in the House refused to add that three-fourths requirement to HB 2523 based on Grantham's contention that his legislation doesn't affect the initiative.
Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, warned colleagues against approving the change.
"It is my opinion that the state will be sued, at considerable cost to the state,'' said Engel who is an attorney.
The legislation needs a final roll-call vote before going to the Senate.
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