When Representative Kenneth Mendonca (Republican, District 72, Portsmouth) presented his youth minimum wage bill to the House Labor Committee, he began by going after the minimum wage itself. “There is significant data that directly correlates that an increase in minimum wage has a negative impact for those under the age of 20 years old,” said Mendonca.
Right away, Mendonca was wrong.
Mendoca’s bill, H5594 would “set the minimum hourly wage, for employees that have not reached 20 years of age at $9.65.” This wage would stay put as the minimum wage in Rhode Island is raised to $10.50 as has been proposed in Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget. If for some reason the minimum wage is not raised this year, Mendonca said he would withdraw his bill.
Mendonca dutifully presented the standard industry lobbyist falsehoods in support of what proponents call an “opportunity” or “training” wage in the hope of establishing a system that discriminates against some employees because of their age. For instance, take his first argument that there is significant data showing a relationship between increasing the minimum wage and youth unemployment. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP):
“Economists from the University of California reviewed the impact of the minimum wage on teen employment in a state-of-the-art, peer reviewed study, “Do Minimum Wages Really Reduce Teen Employment?” The study carefully examined the impact of all US minimum wage increases between 1990 and 2009 on teen workers, including minimum wage increases implemented during times of high unemployment such as the national recessions of 1990-1991, 2001 and 2007-2009.
“After analyzing the economic data, and after controlling for economic factors –such as regional economic shocks and varying regional growth rates for low-wage jobs that can bias the results the researchers concluded that raising the wage floor does not lead to reductions in employment among teens.”
Mendonca said that it’s only common sense that rising business costs force businesses to cut workers and replace them with automation. “In fact,” said Mendonca, “I had a business owner of a national fast-food franchise tell me recently that in five years there would be a machine making sandwiches in his store… Increases in the minimum wage might accelerate the schedule.” Mendonca is here repeating a common scare tactic from those who see workers not as human beings but as things, like machines, to be exploited. Apparently, if workers are not willing to slash the price of their labor to less than the cost of a machine, workers will become unemployable.
I wonder what the cost would be of an animatronic, Hall of Presidents style Kenneth Mendonca, programed to repeat economic nonsense in House committee meetings?
Mendonca next recited a bunch of statistics purporting to show that minimum wage increases price teenagers out of the labor market. Mendonca relied oneconomist Stephen Moore, of the right-wing Heritage Foundation for his statistics and analysis. Unfortunately, Moore is data mining his statistics and his analysis is mired in ideology, not science.
Once more, NELP:
“Teen employment levels have been falling for decades, including a dramatic decline since 2000. Overall, teens 16 to 19 years old represent a very small portion of the state’s total workforce – just 1.97 percent in 2014, and hovering around the 2 to 3 percent range since 2005.
“This trend is unrelated to the minimum wage and has continued regardless of whether the minimum wage has been flat or increasing – making it clear that this decline has nothing to do with the minimum wage.
“There are multiple reasons for this decline, including the fact that today more teens are full-time students than in the past, that fewer upper income teens work than in past decades, and that working class teens seeking jobs face increasing competition from adult workers over 55, many of whom cannot afford to retire and are turning to low-wage jobs.”
Mendonca contended that “high minimum wage rates hurts teens chances at learning valuable life skills that cannot be taught in the classroom.” Those able to find work “earn more than just a paycheck. They learn valuable life skills like the importance of meeting deadlines, how to report to a manager, and how to get along with co-workers. These are not lessons that are taught in a classroom setting.”
Mendonca was literally spouting nonsense. There’s so much wrong here I barely know where to begin. School is all about learning to meet deadlines. School is all about learning to report to a manager (teacher). And school is all about getting along with co-workers (fellow students). These are not skills taught in a classroom, but they are all skills we learn in schools. What kind of schools did Mendonca attend where these skills are not taught? Or does Mendonca believe that kids entering low-wage jobs attend different kinds of schools with standards different from those in his personal experience?
There are hints of class and racism in his comments that Mendonca soon makes explicit.
“There’s also the potential of unintended consequences of increasing the minimum wage that has an impact on our youth,” said Mendonca, “Research from Northeastern University has found that teenagers, especially those who are economically disadvantaged, with no paid employment, are more likely to drop out of high school, become involved with the criminal justice system, and to become pregnant.”
Mendonca might be saying “our youth” near the beginning of his sentence, but by the end it is clear that he is dog whistling his audience about economically disadvantaged youth of color. Black and Latinx youth complete at lower rates than whites. Black youth are four times as likely to be involved with the criminal justice system than whites, and black and Latinx youth are about twice as likely as white youth to become pregnant.
Feigning concern for economically disadvantaged youth while establishing a system that will pay them less is monstrous. Michael Araujo executive director of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice understood this as he compared Mendonca proposed sub-minimum wage plan to Jim Crow laws.
“Equal pay for equal work,” said Araujo, “is a foundational principle of the labor movement. It’s the foundational principle that under-girds everything we do. To say that that worker, standing next to me, performing the exact same job is worth two-thirds? We’ve had compromises that have made fractions of humanity before. Let’s not keep doing this. Let’s not keep going down this road. Let’s reject partial humanity for workers and treat everyone as fully equal in the workplace.”
Representative Jared Nunes (Democrat, District 25, Coventry, West Warwick) asked about the negative effects Mendoca’s plan might have on a young teen couple working minimum wage jobs and supporting a child. “Would we be handicapping that couple,” asked Nunes.
Mendonca offered a non-answer, saying that just because his bill allows an employer to pay a lesser minimum wage, that doesn’t mean employers have to pay a lesser wage. Employers could voluntarily pay more. How does this help Nunes’ hypothetical teen couple and baby?
Mendonca suggested that the age for the lower minimum wage might be 18 instead of 19, so that Nunes’ hypothetical family might be paid more. “But clearly,” said Mendonca, “those kids who are 15 and 16 years old, they have less of an opportunity to get jobs.”
When Mendonca was asked what might prevent an employer from hiring a worker at age 16 and letting them go at age 19 to save money, Mendonca insisted that employers want quality employees, and they are “not going to let them go because of a minimum wage shift up or down.”
Once again, the evidence is against Mendonca. According to NELP:
“The employers who would benefit substantially under a training sub-minimum wage are those who have chosen a high-turnover staffing model. This is chiefly low-road employers in fast food and chain retail employers, which have disproportionately high rates of employee turnover, ranging up to 200 percent on an annual basis. (here and here) This means that fast-food and chain retail employers often replace their entire staff once every six months on average.
“A sub-minimum training wage essentially creates a loophole that allows low-road fast food and chain retailers to pay their employees less than the state’s minimum wage for roughly half of their average short, six-month job tenures – a very substantial savings for these employers, but a loss to low-wage workers.
“The training wage loophole is unfair to small businesses and to conscientious employers, who already struggle to compete with big businesses while treating their employees (of any age) well. It is also unwarranted, since the fast-food and major retail chains are seeing record corporate profits, and can readily afford to pay a higher minimum wage.”
In a back-and-forth with Representative Aaron Regunberg (Democrat, District 4, Providence) Mendonca maintained that a very small percentage of minimum wage workers in Rhode Island are the breadwinners in their family. Later, having looked up the data, Regunberg noted that nearly two-thirds of Rhode Island’s minimum wage workers are 25 years old or older and almost 30 percent have children.
Regunberg was concerned that minimum wage workers with families over the age of 20 might lose their jobs in favor of the cheaper labor Mendonca’s bill would create.
In case you think Mendoca is somehow an extreme right-wing outlier, you should know that Representative Patricia Morgan (Republican, District 26, West Warwick), the House Minority Leader, co-sponsored Mendonca’s bill.
But this isn’t just a Republican problem. The bad economic thinking that led Mendonca to introduce his bill also led Representative Kenneth Marshall (Democrat, District 68, Bristol) to introduce a sub-minimum wage bill for those under the age of twenty. H6052 “would allow employers to pay the greater or 75 percent of the state minimum wage rate, or the federal minimum wage rate to employees 18 years or younger during the first 680 hours or 90 days of their employment.” Representatives Gregory Costantino (Democrat, District 44 Lincoln), Jean Philippe Barros (Democrat, District 59, Pawtucket) and Carlos Tobon (Democrat, District 58, Pawtucket) co-sponsored this bill.
Marshall compared his bill to an apprentice program. Marshall’s comparison is woefully inapplicable. Apprenticeship programs at their best teach valuable skills. Minimum wage fast-food service jobs, by contrast, do not offer valuable skills. They offer skills necessary to do low-wage fast-food industry jobs, which pay minimum and now potentially sub-minimum wages.
“A recent report from JP Morgan in May 2016 found that summer employment rates for teenagers are nearing a record low of 34 percent,” said Marshall, missing the fact that summer employment doesn’t last much more than 90 days, which is the amount of time employers have under his bill to pay workers a lesser rate. An 18 year-old who starts a summer job on June 1 will qualify for the standard minimum wage around September 1 under Marshall’s bill, just in time to leave the job and go back to school.
Marshall says his bill will help employers and employees, but it’s hard to see the benefit to employees under 20 years of age when they are making 25 percent less in wages than their co-workers aged 20 and over.
Marshall noted that the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce is in favor of his bill. Significantly, the Chamber did not note any benefits to employees upon passage. All the benefits seem to be for employers, who will save money.
“The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce supports H6052 as a way to provide relief to Rhode Island employers struggling to cope with the rapid increase in the state minimum wage over the last five years,” writes Chamber lobbyist Elizabeth Suever, “The opportunity wage would allow employers the ability to train young workers at a lower minimum wage for a temporary time period to alleviate wage compression, which occurs when newly hired workers making the minimum wage are earning wages equal to or nearly equal to their more experienced co-workers due to minimum wage increases.”
In other words, the Chamber sees this bill as providing relief from one of the great advantages of raising the minimum wage, which is the upwards pressure raising the minimum wage has on the salaries of those making slightly more than minimum. If you’re making $10.50, and the minimum wage goes up from $9.60 to $10.50, you’ll be agitating for a wage increase to at least $11.40, because you were not a minimum wage worker before the wage was raised, you were a worker who made 90 cents more than minimum wage, and you want to maintain that.
The ability to pay some workers less than minimum allows employers to escape this upward pressure on wages, because the true minimum wage will be the opportunity wage, and any employee could be replaced with a cheaper trainee at any moment.
Lobbyist Sarah Bratko, representing the Rhode Island Hospitality Association (RIHA) also spoke in support of Marshall’s bill. “We started getting interested in this type of legislation when we heard from our members that they’re not able to higher young employees anymore. That’s really a concern for us. One in three Americans get their first job in the restaurant industry. And over the course of their lifetime half of Americans will have a job in the hospitality industry. So we really view it as a privilege but also a responsibility that we have a commitment to the development of our future work force.”
Bratko also talked about rising costs and the recent increases in minimum wage in Rhode Island. “So the idea behind this is just to make it a little bit easier for those industries and those businesses that want to higher teenagers to give them that added incentive.”
I’m beginning to think there’s nothing RIHA won’t say when it comes to advocating for their ability to exploit workers. Since Bratko mentioned incentives, here’s NELP one more time:
“A sub-minimum training wage for teens rewards employers for hiring teens in the place of adult workers, and creates an incentive for more employers to churn their work forces and shift to the high-turnover staffing model.
“Incentivizing these practices is harmful for the workforce and economy, and will hurt adult workers – especially in high unemployment areas – who are struggling to find jobs.”
All of Bratko’s talk about privilege and responsibility was sleight of hand, a distraction from the real objective: to squeeze profits from a teen workforce that doesn’t have the political power to protect itself from greedy industries and the soulless politicians that enable them.
I’d be remiss not to include the two excellent speakers (aside from Mike Araujo, above) who spoke against the two sub-minimum wage bills. Portsmouth resident John McDaid, a RI Future contributor, took Mendoca to task for what he called disingenuous “concern trolling about the impact on jobs.”
“If employers are as motivated by the bottom line as Representative Mendonca suggests, why wouldn’t they always choose younger workers to get lower rates?” asked McDaid. “Honestly, I am ashamed that a representative from Portsmouth sponsored this bill.”
Amy Joy Glidden spoke as a former teenage mother.
“I used to work for minimum wage,” said Glidden. “As a pregnant teenager I worked at Taco Bell in Portland, Maine. At that time the minimum wage was $7.25 and hour. It was a very difficult time in my life to try and get by on these kind of wages.”
Glidden noted that in 2014 about a thousand teenagers in Rhode Island became parents. “They deserve a chance to get ahead,” she said.
“As an educator I work with students and I got feedback today like, ‘I pay $400 a month for rent.’ Some of my students are living on their own. Some of them are teenage parents, some of them are paying bills. It’s just not realistic. It’s kind of a fairy tale that teenage workers are people who get a summer job. And quite frankly, if a summer job only lasts for three months, well, the summer season is June, July and August.
“This is not an opportunity wage,” said Glidden, “It’s an exploitation wage, and we should not give anyone the opportunity to exploit teenage workers.”