New attempt to cut Maine’s minimum wage targets younger workers

New attempt to cut Maine’s minimum wage targets younger workers

In the ongoing battle to protect the minimum wage law passed overwhelmingly by Maine voters last November, the fight to preserve the inclusion of tipped workers—now in danger of repeal at the hands of Republican and a small but significant bloc of Democratic legislators—has rightfully drawn a majority of the attention of pro-worker activists. At stake in that debate is the fundamental right for service workers to be fairly and fully compensated for their labor by their employers, which is about as foundational as labor activism gets.

Buried deeper in the debate about the minimum wage, however, is a separate but intimately related attack on workers’ rights: one that would at once exploit the labor of young workers and undercut older workers, at the expense of all but their employers.

That attack comes in the form of a new “training wage” bill that has become bound up in the larger minimum wage fight in this legislative session. The bill, LD 774, would turn students aged 20 and under into a new class of workers, entitled only to one dollar per hour more than the federal minimum wage, which would right now place that rate at $8.25 per hour.

It is important to note that because this bill pegs the “training wage” to the federal minimum wage and not to the state wage, subsequent increases to the state minimum wage, set to be $12.00 per hour by 2020 and then increasing every year after according to the consumer price index, would not affect this subminimum wage. This means that as time goes on, the gap between the two wages could grow toward a disparity of more than 30% and then would continue to grow year over year, since the federal minimum wage is not tied to inflation and has little chance of increasing under the Republican regime in Washington.

The resulting wage imbalance would spell catastrophe for both young workers, and older workers already established in the workforce. Older workers stand to be displaced by a much cheaper labor force, all while Maine students, already part of one of the most financially indebted generations in our history, would be forced to work at poverty wages. Truly, the only winners in this fight are employers, who can use the threat of hiring significantly cheaper young workers to essentially hold older workers hostage—tipping the balance of workplace power firmly and permanently in the hands of management. This would occur against a backdrop in which workers would be pitted against one another on the basis of age or educational status, creating ample space for generational schisms and age-based discrimination.

This bill, in short, would harm every low-wage worker in the state, regardless of their age.

While Saco Democratic Senator Justin Chenette (a respected personal friend and my predecessor as President of the Maine Young Democrats) defended his cosponsorship of the bill by stating that it was “worth having that conversation” in the ongoing minimum wage debate, the idea of paying young people less than other workers in Maine is not a new one. Republican Representative David Burns introduced a similar bill in 2011, and Governor LePage has spoken of the idea favorably over the course of his time in the Blaine House. Each time these efforts were beaten back because of the glaring inequities for workers that they presented, and although the 2016 referendum made no specific mention of a subminimum wage for young people, it is clear that it cuts against a law whose expressed intent was to lift up all workers whether old, young, tipped, or untipped.

It is unlikely that this bill will attract enough Democratic support to make it to the Governor’s desk, and Sen. Chenette—the only Democratic cosponsor—left the door open to ultimately opposing the legislation, despite his name being on the bill. However, the mere introduction of a piece of legislation this fundamentally unfair to workers of all ages is another stark reminder that continued vigilance is required and that despite workers’ victory at the ballot box the fight for fair wages is far from over.

Photo of workers at Bangor’s Fork and Spoon, who are paid higher than the minimum wage.

About author

Grady Burns
Grady Burns 36 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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