Business and Labor

Lower wage advanced for youth workers

A bill to create a separate minimum wage for young workers was amended and advanced April 15.

As introduced by Crete Sen. Laura Ebke, LB599 would have allowed employers to pay $7.25 an hour for workers age 18 and younger. The proposed rate was raised to $8 per hour by a successful committee amendment.

Workers could receive the rate for only 25 percent of the hours worked. The bill would apply only to workers enrolled in public or private schools and would not include employees participating in vocational training programs.

Last November, Nebraska voters approved Initiative 425, which raised the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.00 per hour for 2015. Nebraska’s minimum wage will increase to $9.00 in 2016.

The ballot initiative was the result of a successful petition drive that followed the 2014 Legislature’s rejection of a bill to increase the wage. A bill that amends a law enacted by voter initiative requires 33 votes for passage.

Ebke said the bill is designed reduce labor costs for businesses such as grocers in small communities in rural Nebraska. Making young workers more affordable for employers will result in more job opportunities for youth and help small businesses survive, she said.

“Research suggests that the best way to interconnect young adults to their first jobs is by lowering barriers to hiring them,” Ebke said.

A Business and Labor Committee amendment, adopted 26-0, would require employers to pay young student workers at least $8 per hour beginning Jan. 1, 2016.

Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist opposed the bill and the amendment, saying 60 percent of voters in 73 counties statewide voted to increase the state’s minimum wage.

“Clearly this issue had very broad-based support in Nebraska,” Nordquist said. “Now we have an attempt to come in here and start picking it apart.”

Because the measure would affect only young workers enrolled in school, Nordquist added, some students may quit school to pursue higher wages.

“We are creating a perverse incentive to encourage our kids to drop out,” he said.

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins supported the bill. State and federal regulations prohibit young workers from completing certain tasks or operating machinery, he said, which limits their value to an employer.

“There is no reason a store should pay the same salary for somebody who can do only half the job,” Bloomfield said.

Heartwell Sen. John Kuehn also spoke in favor of the bill. First jobs are critical to the long-term earning potential of workers, he said, with early work experience resulting in 7 percent higher annual wages in later years.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln opposed the bill, saying some young workers depend on their wages to help support their families. The bill unfairly targets a group of citizens who are not old enough to vote, he said, and sends a message that their work is worth less than the same job done by an older coworker.

“The people we are subjecting to this don’t have a political voice,” Morfeld said. “We are devaluing the work that they do.”

Lawmakers advanced the bill from general file on a 32-11 vote.

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