Bringing the Economy Home

Bottom Rung: The Politics Of Increasing Idaho’s Minimum Wage

U.S. Department of Labor / Flickr Creative Commons

Acting U.S. Labor Dept. Secretary Seth Harris.

As in many states, Idaho’s minimum wage hasn’t changed since 2009, when the hourly minimum was boosted by the federal government.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found 31,000 hourly Idaho workers earned the minimum wage, $7.25, or less in 2012. That’s a 63 percent increase from 2011.

The data doesn’t tell us who these workers are, or where they live. We don’t know, for example, if the majority of those 31,000 minimum wage earners are teenagers working a part-time job, or middle-aged parents trying to support a family.

But back in February, President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union Address that he wants to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour. Since then, acting Labor Department Secretary Seth Harris has been campaigning to boost support for the idea.

Harris says raising the minimum wage will directly help workers earning it, but will also benefit the entire economy.

“Those workers will have more money in their pockets,” says Harris. “They will turn right around and spend that money in the local grocery store, the local gas station, at the local stationary store to buy school supplies for their kids, to pay rent and utilities. That, in turn, feeds the economy.”

But the proposal will be a tough sell to Idaho’s congressional delegation. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) doesn’t support increasing the federal minimum, despite voting for the 2007 legislation that increased the wage over three years.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) also voted for the 2007 bill, and doesn’t support raising the rate to $9 an hour. A spokesman for Sen. Crapo says a minimum wage increase will put a strain on employers and hinder job growth.

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Sen. Risch (R-Idaho) won’t say if he supports increasing the minimum wage until there is a bill to vote on. However, his spokesperson says it’s best to work out policy at the state level.

Some states have taken it upon themselves to boost the minimum wage. Nineteen states plus the District of Columbia have a higher minimum wage than the federal $7.25 base. Wyoming and Utah are Idaho’s only neighboring states with the federal minimum wage or less. Idaho’s western neighbors have the highest minimum wages in the country.

Rich Franco owns Franco’s Pizzeria in Boise. He pays his mostly college-aged employees $7.50 an hour, one quarter above the minimum wage. “I just think it’s a nice gesture to the person that we’re not just looking to pay minimum wage,” says Franco. “Their services are valuable.”

He hasn’t thought much about what a $9 an hour minimum wage would do to his pizza business. “If that’s what they say it’s got to be, that’s what it’s going to be, and you adjust your business accordingly” Franco says. “There are a lot of ways to make up that difference.”

Emilie Ritter Saunders / StateImpact Idaho

Darin Eisenbarth has been the president of Zamzows since 2002.

Local garden and pet supply store Zamzows also pays more than minimum wage. Company president Darin Eisenbarth says Zamzows employees start anywhere between $8.50 and $10 an hour. Eisenbarth says he isn’t able to attract quality workers unless they pay more than the minimum. He doesn’t think his business would be adversely affected by a higher minimum wage.

Despite the partisan political temperature in Washington, D.C., acting Labor Department secretary Seth Harris expects conservative members of Congress will vote to increase the minimum wage.

Since the minimum wage was created in 1938, it’s been increased about two dozen times. Harris says if the minimum wage is increased moderately, there won’t be job losses. He says a higher minimum wage will boost workers’ confidence and thus productivity.

“This will give them a little bit of breathing room,” Harris says. “It won’t put them on easy street.”


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