Las Vegas Sun

November 22, 2019

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Minimum wage issue simmering in the background at 2019 Legislature

Protest Minimum Wage

Las Vegas fast food, airport, Uber, home care, education and child care workers join together with community and elected officials in a march calling for an increase in the minimum wage on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. The march took protesters from the Carl’s Jr. at 2001 Las Vegas Blvd South to the McDonald’s at 2248 Paradise Road.

In a legislative session in which Democrats dominate, one stereotypically progressive issue hasn’t garnered much attention yet — raising the state’s minimum wage.

Minimum wage increases are being debated all over the country, and it’s an issue that Nevada has taken up in the past. There is a path toward a higher minimum wage this session — Gov. Steve Sisolak has signaled his willingness — and there is a path toward a vote on the 2020 ballot.

But nothing has come up yet. So where does the issue sit now?

In short, as far as a direct increase in the minimum wage goes — we wait.

A bill passed in the 2017 session would have increased the state minimum wage from $7.25 per hour for workers receiving fringe benefits and $8.25 for workers not receiving fringe benefits to $11 and $12, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Brian Sandoval. Though state law would allow an override attempt on Sandoval’s veto this session, garnering the required supermajority vote in both chambers is unlikely since the Democrats lack a supermajority in the state Senate. In past remarks, Democratic leaders said there were no plans to override any of Sandoval’s 2017 vetoes, and that they would prefer to revisit issues by filing new bills.

There are no bills currently scheduled for a hearing that would raise the minimum wage, but the deadline for filing bills doesn’t arrive until Monday.

Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel, D-Henderson, the chairwoman of the Assembly Committee on Commerce and Labor, said she was unaware of any bills coming up on the issue in her committee. Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor, said the same.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be any bills presented, however.

“(After March 18), that’s when we’ll be able to see what’s on the horizon,” Spiegel said.

One bill draft resolution mentioning Nevada’s minimum wage has been submitted this session to the Legislative Counsel Bureau — the office charged with drafting bills so that they adhere to required terminology, form and style, but the contents of such resolutions are largely confidential until the bill is officially filed.

The 2017 Legislature also passed Senate Joint Resolution 6 — which aims to increase the minimum wage to $14 by 2022, or to match the federal minimum wage, whichever is higher. If the Legislature approves the resolution again this session, Nevada voters will get a chance to weigh in on it in the form of a constitutional amendment vote on the 2020 ballot. There are currently no hearings scheduled for SJR 6 this session.

Spearman does have a bill currently out that would affect health insurance requirements for some minimum wage earners. Her bill requires employers who pay the $7.25 minimum wage to offer health care services in line with the Affordable Care Act, which includes provisions such as maternity and newborn care, prescription drugs and pediatric services. Spearman said, she had heard from some constituents that the health care plan some minimum-wage earners were being given by their employers was “useless” — sometimes it wouldn’t cover prescription medicines, or the deductible was too high to be of any benefit — prompting her measure.

Around the country one number has repeatedly been mentioned as the goal for the minimum wage — $15 per hour. In Nevada, however, a single large increase to $15 is probably a poison pill. Sisolak has signaled his approval of a single increase to $12 per hour, but going further than that, he said, would require staggering out the increases to receive his support.

In a past interview with the Sun, the governor said he wanted to tackle the issue cautiously to avoid harming smaller businesses.

“If you from bump somebody who’s getting $9-$10 an hour up to $15, and you’ve got two employees, that’s $500 a week,” he said. “That’s the difference between somebody being in business or out of business.”

Critics of a minimum wage increase have argued that the impact of a large increase hitting all at once would hammer businesses, making small businesses less likely to be able to support the labor pool they now do.

Bradley Wimmer, a professor of business at UNLV, said by increasing the cost of labor, a minimum wage increase may trigger businesses cutting back on their labor pool.

“Firms are going to maximize profits; that’s what they do,” he said.

Wimmer said that staggering the increases — say, by a hypothetical increase to $12 and then by $1 every two years afterward — could ease businesses into a higher labor cost and minimize possible job losses. Going too far, too fast, he said, could be detrimental to workers — though the increase would create a better environment for those who do keep their jobs.

“People who keep their jobs, of course, they’re going to do better,” he said.

Wimmer also brought up the specter of automation, saying if wages go too high too quickly, business may have incentive to automate. (For reference, the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis puts the number of automatable jobs in Las Vegas at 65.2 percent.)

Union representatives around the Las Vegas Valley continue to express support for increasing the minimum wage.

Bethany Khan, communications director with the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, said the union supported and increased minimum wage to better the lives of workers, and she touted the importance of representation in increasing workers’ wages further.

Culinary Union members working on the Las Vegas Strip make an average of $24 an hour when benefits are included, she said.

Grace Vergara-Mactal, a trustee of Service Employees International Union Local 1107, said the SEIU also supported the issue.

“At a time when wealthy corporations continue to keep wages low and chip away at benefits, SEIU Nevada members are committed to raising the minimum wage and making it easier to join a union no matter where they work,” she said. “Everyone who works deserves to be paid enough to provide for themselves and their families while having a voice on the job.”

Virginia Mills, president of the Education Support Employees Association, which represents support workers in the Clark County School District, said a minimum wage raise would be helpful to its memberships.

“Support Professionals are the lowest paid employees in the Clark County School District, so any method of increasing their salaries would be welcomed,” she said.

Spearman said that employers who don’t pay a livable wage hurt both their employees and taxpayers in the long run by creating situations in which their workers have to turn to government services for help, even after working a 40-hour week.

“A private employer who does not pay their employees enough to survive and they qualify for Medicaid and other social services, guess who picks up the tab for that? We do,” she said. “We are subsidizing irresponsible personnel policies or, at the very least, personnel policies that have not considered the humanity of the workers.”