Legislative column

Missouri voters went to the polls in November and overwhelmingly approved increasing the state’s minimum wage. Proposition B mandates annual increases to Missouri’s minimum wage over the next four years. The lowest wage most workers in our state may be paid after 2023 is $12 per hour.

Raising the minimum wage will certainly benefit working adults who struggled to make a living on $7.85 an hour, Missouri’s old minimum wage. But the new base wage applies to all classes of workers, including high school students who work after-school jobs. According to federal statistics, one quarter of the 1.8 million Americans working at or below the minimum wage are younger than age 19. More than half of minimum wage earners work part-time.

The young cashier who takes your order at the hamburger stand probably isn’t the head of a household. The kid tearing your ticket at the movie theater doesn’t balance a family budget. In most cases, the teenager who wipes down your dash and windows at the car wash lives with Mom or Dad.

I’m sure all these young workers will appreciate receiving a 50 percent pay increase over the next four years. My concern is whether they will even have a job. At $12 an hour, I’m afraid we’ll price them out of the workforce altogether.

Last week, I submitted legislation that would allow workers under the age of 18 to be paid 85 percent of the adult minimum wage. This provision is similar to federal law, which allows a sub-minimum wage for students and trainees, among other employees.

Under my bill, a teenager filling ice cream cones at the local drive-in would still earn $7.30 an hour this year – a nickel more than the federal minimum wage. By 2023, a minor-age employee doing the same job would be paid more than $10 an hour.

Another part of my legislation says that the hourly wage for employees who work for tips would be 50 percent of the minimum wage as of January 1 of this year. This part of my bill shouldn’t be controversial because the law says that the least a tip worker can earn, counting their gratuities, is minimum wage. Most restaurant servers take home far more than that, and few would trade their tips for a guaranteed hourly pay.

I’ve caught a lot of flak for my youth-wage proposal, however. One of the big city newspapers said I was showing contempt for the voters. I am not. I am trying to protect the jobs of young people.

Before I became a legislator, I owned Cunningham’s Fresh Foods, a supermarket in Marshfield. I employed about 135 people. About half of those workers were local high school students who worked part-time. All told, I employed about 2,000 teenagers through the years I owned my grocery store. I appreciated these young workers because they were willing to work nights and weekends, when adult and full-time employees needed to be home with their families.

For most of these kids, this was their first job. They came to me without any experience, few skills and no history of showing up on time and ready to work. Working at the grocery store taught them good work habits and built customer service skills.

I had these young people in mind when I drafted this legislation. I want teenagers to continue to have opportunities to learn skills and gain experience so they are better prepared for their next job. If we continue to raise the cost of labor, many business owners will simply find ways to get by with fewer workers. We’re already seeing this in restaurants, where customers place their food orders at an electronic kiosk at the counter, and iPads are replacing cashiers.

My bill does not require employers to pay less than the minimum wage. They can always pay more. There’s nothing that keeps an employer from giving raises and rewarding a good employee who shows up on time, works hard and treats the customers well.

Finally, this legislation has no effect on any employee over the age of 17. The new minimum wage and subsequent annual increases will still apply.

One can debate whether a high school student with no experience deserves to earn $12 an hour bagging groceries after school. One thing that is not debatable is that fewer young people will have jobs if wages are too high. That’s not a good thing.

There’s been a lot of focus on workforce development in Missouri lately. Let’s never forget that the best place to learn job skills is on the job.

Mike Cunningham is a Republican member of the Missouri State Senate, representing District 33. Contact him at 573-751-1882 or www.senate.mo.gov/cunningham

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