House panel chooses to keep Wyoming’s working poor in poverty

The Wyoming State Legislature’s House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee could have voted to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour Friday, as proposed by Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne).

Its members didn’t.

The panel could have also raised the state’s tipped wage to $5.50 an hour, Byrd’s suggested figure.

Again, they didn’t.

Instead, the committee voted 5 – 4 to raise the state’s minimum wage from the current $5.15—the lowest nationwide, alongside Georgia’s—to $7.25 an hour, the federal level. It kept tipped wages in Wyoming at $2.13 an hour, also the federal minimum.

The committee’s move was largely symbolic, since it won’t affect many Wyoming workers. Most businesses accept credit cards, which binds them to interstate commerce laws and means they have to pay the federal minimum wage anyway.

Well-coiffed lobbyists for restaurants and convenience stores were happy with the committee. They fought Byrd’s House Bill 140 tooth-and-nail, told the committee horror stories about how much money they would lose. They threatened that if the state went beyond $7.25 an hour, they would have to eliminate the jobs of the workers Byrd was trying to help.

“We’re not causing those people to starve,” said Tom Jones, representing a convenience store association.

But that’s only because many minimum-wage workers at convenience stores and elsewhere tend to qualify for food stamps, especially if they have dependants. This means, basically, that taxpayers pay to feed these workers and their families so that their mostly corporate employers can pay below-poverty wages and pocket the difference.

A history of legislative hostility toward workers

Even after passing through committee largely gutted of its purpose, HB-140 faces an uphill battle in both the full House and the Senate.

Byrd sponsored a bill three years ago that would have raised the state minimum to $9 an hour, a total several states and municipalities have now surpassed. In those states, the working poor may still be struggling, but they’re out of poverty. A single individual who makes $7.25 an hour for a 40-hour workweek has a gross income of $15,080 a year. The federal poverty rate in 2017 is $16,240.

The Wyoming House not only rejected Byrd’s 2014 bill, they stomped on it. They defeated it 51 – 9, with only one Republican—Rep. Michael Madden of Buffalo—joining House Democrats on the losing side.

Byrd told the committee Friday he has purchased a small business since the last time he tried to raise the state’s minimum wage. He explained that he immediately raised the minimum wage at his business to $10 an hour.

The move didn’t put Byrd out of business, as opponents have long warned that a hike would do. He calculated that the raise cost him about 1 percent of his net profit. Byrd said since it made workers happier, he figured it would improve their performance and decrease turnover, thus lowering his training expenses. It would also allow workers more disposable income to buy goods, so it would improve the local economy.

Byrd said he sponsored HB-140 for the many tipped workers he has met. “I’ve seen tipped employees after an entire night of work come out of there with almost enough money to pay for some of the gas it took to get there,” he said.

“That [tipped] wage only works if you’re in an economy that’s booming,” he added. “We’re in an economy that’s not booming—it’s flat, so people’s discretionary dollars have dried up.”

“If you work hard 40 hours a week at your job and give it 100 percent, you should be able to afford some basic necessities,” he said. “A roof over your head, food and some basic amenities to get by.” While $9.50 an hour isn’t enough, he noted, “It’s a move in the right direction.”

Lying lobbyists: Part 1

Then came a small army of lobbyists who testified against HB-140. Chris Brown, representing the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association, said his industry employs about 12 percent of Wyoming’s workforce and offers high school students the opportunity to earn good part-time pay. “It’s also an industry that encourages folks to work up through the ranks, even if they don’t have a college degree,” he said.

Brown claimed that nationally, tipped workers are making between $12 and $20 an hour. “No one [on my board] tells me they are paying the minimum wage,” he said. “That’s because in Wyoming good labor, good employees are difficult to find.”

Right. But hotel and restaurant managers don’t miss many opportunities to remind their employees that they should be grateful, since there are so many people lined up to take their jobs.

Brown said restaurants operate on about a 3 to 5 percent profit margin. “There’s no way we could absorb [that extra cost] in a down economy … so less people get hired and our existing staff has to do work more with what they’re being paid.”

John Johnson, who owns five restaurants in Casper and one in Gillette, presented the committee with tipped wage figures from some of his businesses. By apparently cherry-picking the top employees, he said servers at his highest-end restaurant make about $20 an hour, and one even made $33 an hour.

“That doesn’t sound too bad to me,” said Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette), apparently considering a career change.

Johnson said HB-140’s suggested raises are far too high. “We can’t even hire people in Casper for $7.25 an hour, so we start them higher,” he said.

Outside of the committee room, an observer remarked: “I don’t get it. If they can’t find people at $7.25 an hour, and they’re already paying more than that anyway, why is the industry fighting this so hard?”

We’re wondering the same thing.

Lying lobbyists: Part 2

Tom Jones, representing Wyoming convenience stores, maintained that an increase in the minimum wage doesn’t improve the economy just because there’s more money to spend. “It doesn’t improve the owner’s gross sales. All it does is take money from the business owner and gives it to someone else,” he said.

He meant the money would go to people who work the graveyard shift while the owner sleeps.

Jones said the average person who works at a convenience store is single and lives at home, “so we’re not hurting anyone’s family.”

Of course, if a worker is paid minimum $5 or $7 an hour, there’s not much chance for her to buy a house and move out of her parents’ basement.

Paradoxically, Jones continued to say: “Interestingly enough, the average income in those families is $70,000.”

Wyoming’s median household income is roughly $59,000 (as of 2015). Who knew all those Loaf ‘N’ Jug clerks were upper-middle class?

They’re not. Jones is full of shit.

“I would submit that you are not a very good businessperson”

Byrd made some final stinging remarks to the panel before they neutered his bill’s wage increase from $9.50 to $7.25 and passed it on to the full House.

He reminded the members his business only lost 1 percent of its profit margin when he raised the minimum wage even higher than he proposed in HB-140. He said if people cannot afford that small of a loss with current market conditions, “I would submit that you are not a very good businessperson and you are on your way out of business.”

He came back to tipped workers, whose employers by law are required to make up the difference in pay if their workers’ wages, with tips, do not reach minimum wage. But Wyoming has essentially zero rights protecting tipped workers, and fear of being fired keeps many from standing up to their managers. These people aren’t teenagers working for fun money, either—nationwide more than a quarter of tipped workers are raising children and nearly 90 percent are age 20 or older.

“When you go out to eat this weekend, ask your server how much they’re making,” Byrd told committee members. “Ask them if they have more than one job. Ask them if they make anywhere near the numbers that have [been cited here today].”

Notably, no one representing servers spoke up. They all had to work.

The Wyoming State Legislature’s House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee could have voted to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour Friday, as proposed by Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne). Its members didn’t. The panel could have also raised the state’s tipped wage to $5.50 an hour, Byrd’s suggested figure. Again, they didn’t. […]
2758 replies

Comments are closed.