Idaho's Minimum Wage: Dems Make a Case for a Raise

Sidelined in the Idaho Senate, Democratic lawmakers continue to press for a higher minimum wage


Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, and Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, were looking forward to public testimony on the bill they introduced to raise Idaho's minimum wage above the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. Now that discussion—touching on the plights of working families, employers and the Idaho economy at large—isn't going to happen, at least not in 2015.

"I think that a public hearing would have helped clarify the economic factors. It wouldn't be dumbed down. The entire economic issue is so complex that we need to have an educated conversation," Erpelding said.

The bill received a print hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee on Feb. 27, but the committee's chairman, Republican Boise Nampa Sen. Curt McKenzie, declined to give the bill a public hearing. Raising the minimum wage in Idaho is dead in the Senate, but according to Erpelding, waiting another year to raise wages could put Idaho in a bind if the federal minimum suddenly increases.

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for increasing the federal minimum to $10.10 per hour. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has raised wages for 2.4 million of its employees in 21 states. According to the Economic Policy Institute, wages at the retail giant will increase an average of $1 per hour to an average of $8 and a maximum of $9.15. Wages at T.J. Maxx, Marshall's and Home Goods will increase to $9 this year and $10 in 2016. The Idaho bill would have increased the minimum to $8.25 per hour in 2015 and $9.25 per hour in 2016, then peg the minimum wage to the consumer price index.

According to Erpelding, Idaho should stay ahead of the curve when it comes to compensating hourly workers—especially considering the fact that, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Idaho is No. 2 in the nation for the percentage of workers making at or below the minimum wage. What's more, as businesses like Wal-Mart come around to raising wages, opposition to an increased federal wage may soften in Congress, prompting what would be a mandate to boost pay. Erpelding and Stennett offered their bill as a way to soften the blow.

"Slow, calculated advancing of the minimum wage isn't going to cause that small business owner to lay off employees," Erpelding said.

The Idaho bill would not, however, have made Idaho's minimum wage its living wage. In August 2014, the Alliance for a Just Society the "Families Out of Balance" report, concluding that Idaho's minimum wage was just short of half its living wage for a single adult—$14.57 per hour. According to a study conducted by the University of California-Berkeley, more than half of frontline fast food workers nationwide—a huge block of minimum-wage earners—are older than 20 years of age and 68 percent are the primary wage earners in their households.

Erpelding told Boise Weekly that the "minimum wage was never intended to be the living wage."

"They're two different numbers," he said. "I see the minimum wage as being a worker protection."