Voters weigh proposal to boost minimum wage


COLUMBUS Senate Democratic Leader C.J. Prentiss recalled the day in early 2005 when majority Republicans granted her a committee hearing in support of her bill to raise Ohio s minimum wage.

Most of the committee s GOP members walked out of the room without hearing the testimony of labor leaders, social service providers, and others, she said.

On that day, the wheels were set in motion on a train that will reach voters on Nov. 7, a proposed constitutional amendment pushed by labor and opposed by many businesses that would directly give roughly 300,000 hourly workers their first raise in nine years.

If voters approve, the state s hourly minimum wage would climb from the federal level of $5.15 to $6.85 effective Jan. 1. That would immediately raise the annual pay of a minimum-wage earner working 40 hours a week from $10,712 to $14,248, carrying that person over the federal poverty threshold.

The higher wage, part of a broader movement affecting multiple states, would be automatically adjusted each year to compensate for inflation. Only another constitutional amendment could change the formula.

These are the people who make up our [hotel] beds, said Ms. Prentiss (D., Cleveland). They re the ones in the restaurants who wait on us. They re the ones in the neighborhood stores who wait on us. We re really talking about the hospitality and retail industries where this predominates, and those are the ones who are opposed to this.

The amendment would require employers to pay half of Ohio s new minimum wage for restaurant servers and other workers whose pay is supplemented with tips. This assumes the combination of wage and tips will match or exceed the minimum.

The federal minimum of $5.15 would still apply to workers under the age of 16 and for small employers doing less than $250,000 in business a year.

Polls have shown Issue 2 to be the most popular with likely voters among four statewide issues expected to appear on the ballot. The business community, however, hopes to counter that with ads targeting amendment language it claims would endanger employees private information, making them vulnerable to identity theft.

Voters in Ohio and Arizona need to read the fine print and realize that they are not voting on a simple wage hike, said Tom Foulkes, the National Restaurant Association s vice president for state relations. They could be opening the door to serious privacy violations.

The amendment requires an employer to maintain payroll records for an employee and to make that information available upon request at no cost to an employee or person acting on behalf of an employee.

L. Camille Hebert, an Ohio State University law professor and author of the reference book Employee Law Privacy, characterized the opposition s privacy claims as disingenuous.

While noting the language could have been better drafted, she said she interprets the proposal as allowing an employee, or an agent acting on his behalf, to request information on that employee alone and not on all employees of a company.

It doesn t mean that an interested person is some stranger off the street, she said. Interested person has a legal meaning. It s someone who has a legal right and interest. I don t really believe that the result will be a lot of private information floating around out there, certainly not more than is already available in certain public records.

One thing both critics and opponents of the amendment agree on is that the dispute would end up in court if the amendment passes.

Twenty-two states and Washington have set minimum wages above the federal level. Only Michigan, at $6.95, would have a higher minimum among Ohio s neighbors as of Jan. 1. Michigan and Pennsylvania are both slated to hit $7.15 on July 1. A year later, Michigan will complete its phased-in increase at $7.40.

Both of those states raised their minimum wages through legislative action, not through their constitutions, and neither law contains automatic inflationary adjustments like Ohio s.

Ms. Prentiss said she believes the amendment will draw poor white families that normally lean Republican and poor black families that trend Democrat to the polls. This gives them a reason to vote, she said. They will see that this is something that affects them directly.

The business-backed Ohioans to Protect Personal Privacy objects to the idea of carving the minimum wage into the constitution as well as to new record-keeping requirements for business.

Ty Pine, Ohio director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said costs to business go beyond the direct impact of the minimum wage. Increasing wages at the low end of the scale will have upward pressure on other wages, he said, citing a study suggesting that 12,000 jobs could be lost to layoff as businesses try to control payroll costs. The first in line, he said, could be those holding the low-skill, minimum-wage jobs that backers of the increase say they want to help.

When does the cost of having an employee exceed the value that he brings? he asked. Would you pay $8 to $9 an hour for someone to sweep the floor? When you have competition overseas and in other states, where do you cut? Do you not give raises to the rest of your employees? Do you eliminate the 401(k)?

Supporters of the amendment, however, counter that states with higher minimum wages have done better economically than those still at the federal level.

Contact Jim Provance at: or 614-221-0496.