Bill to cut student wages advances, will be expanded to all youth

By: - March 28, 2019 11:38 pm

A Senate panel on Thursday approved a proposal to allow Arizona employers to pay less than the state’s minimum wage to students who work part-time.

But a Republican lawmaker said a new language will be added to House Bill 2523 to expand its scope. The proposal is unconstitutional because it is in clear conflict with Arizona’s minimum wage statute, which voters approved overwhelmingly in 2016, according to a memo written by a nonpartisan legislative attorney.

Bill sponsor Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, said the bill is intended to address youth unemployment. To do that, HB2523 would allow businesses to pay $7.25 (the federal hourly minimum wage) — which is 34 percent lower than Arizona’s $11 hourly rate — to their employees if they

  • are full-time students
  • work 20 hours a week or less, or for intermittent periods
  • are 22 years or younger

The bill was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote, with Republicans in favor and Democrats in opposition. One member, Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, was absent from the panel.   

Two weeks ago, Grantham’s proposal was held in that committee because Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, had concerns with it.

Pace said Thursday he disagrees with the bill because it’s tied to education, and he worried students will chose to drop out of school to earn higher wages.

So, he and Grantham came up with a solution, Pace said. When the full Senate considers the measure, Pace said an amendment will be introduced to remove the educational requirement. That means all Arizonans 22 years old and younger who work part-time could see their wages cut by nearly $4 an hour.

The bill’s constitutionality will be reviewed by the Senate Rules Committee before it moves on to the Senate floor for debate and a possible vote.

HB2523 passed in the House on a party-line vote in February after passionate debate from lawmakers. The chamber didn’t heed a House lawyer’s recommendation that the measure is unconstitutional and needs an amendment requiring three-fourths vote in each chamber.

The Republican lawmakers in the Senate committee on Thursday agreed with Grantham that his proposal will incentivize businesses to hire young people.

“I can tell you I’m voting for this bill because I want younger people to have more opportunities,” said Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler.

Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, focused on how the bill would harm the economic prosperity of many communities, instead of advancing it. They said if the problem is youth unemployment, there are other ways to tackle the issue than reducing youth wages.

Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Tempe, said he thinks the bill is discriminatory. He added it would burden a population who is already facing higher costs of education and housing.

“Because we are just isolating that group, it’s going to be tougher for them to put food on their table, to go to school, to have a job, to be self-sufficient when they’re 23 and they’re not eligible for this,” Bowie said.

Pace said lawmakers need to act to bring young people into the workforce, and shared his views on minimum wage laws.

“To be clear, I don’t support the concept of minimum wage in general,” Pace said. “As an employer of many people in multiple different locations, I’m always trying to employ people based on what they’re worth.”

Irma Maldonado told lawmakers she’s a student at Grand Canyon University and works part-time. The 20-year-old said she works not to pad her résumé, but to supplement her family’s income.

“Today, I’m here to represent all the young students who just don’t work for experience or for fun, but because our livelihood depends on it,” Maldonado said.

Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, said his West Phoenix district has families with young workers who use their wages to cover the basic needs in their households.

Navarrete said young workers are assets, not liabilities. He echoed a perspective shared by some community groups on social media under the banner of #SameWorkSamePay.

“Putting this restriction on our young people, besides the fact it is unconstitutional, besides the fact I believe it’s discriminatory… we are telling folks that it’s OK to make less money for performing the same job,” Navarrete said.   

Mesnard disagreed.

“It’s not the same work. Even if it’s the same job description, it’s not the same job quality. Who starts out as an expert on Day One? Nobody,” he said. “You gotta start out learning, so it’s really not the same work.”

John Riches, an attorney for the libertarian Goldwater Institute, which crafted the legislation for Grantham, spoke strongly in favor of the measure.

“I can think of a few policies more cruel than telling a willing employee who is willing to work at a certain wage, and a willing employer who is willing to offer that wage, that they cannot have that job because the government has some better idea of what that wage should be,” Riches said.

Bowie told Riches it wasn’t the government who decided Arizona’s minimum wage – more than 1.4 million Arizona voters did.

Several business groups in Arizona support Grantham’s bill. Joe Galli of the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce said the current minimum wage limits who can get hired. He added he is advocating for the students in Northern Arizona University, Coconino Community College and the area high schoolers.

“The reason I’m standing here today is because we believe this bill supports completely the strengths of young people,” Galli said. “We are actually standing here on behalf of those people in the room that spoke against the bill.”

Navarrete disputed Galli’s assertion.

“You are here… not necessarily for the folks in the room, but for the businesses you represent,” he said.

Different university student groups spoke in opposition. Aly Perkins, student body president for Arizona State University’s downtown campus, said students have buying power and contribute to the state’s economy.

“If this legislation passes, what happens when they graduate? What incentivizes them to stay in the state when this economy has treated them like second-class citizens?” Perkins said. “I urge you to invest in your students, so we can invest in Arizona.”

Jason Vail Cruz, with the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, shared another perspective on why the bill is a bad idea. He said those harmed by the bill who are also victims of domestic or sexual abuse would have less access to “recovery, healing and safety.”

“This is not just unfair, it is dangerous,” Vail Cruz said. “Without adequate pay, a student worker may not be able to leave an experience of abuse or afford medical or mental health or other services needed to recover.”

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, said she found Vail Cruz’s statements misleading because many other factors play into domestic and sexual abuse situations.

Vail responded, “Economic security is a factor both in terms of protection and escape from domestic violence.”

Ugenti-Rita later brought up the developmentally disabled community, which has been affected by the state’s minimum wage law, mainly because the state hasn’t fully funded the agency to account for the costs of the wage increase.

Aimee Yentes, from the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a free-market advocacy group that opposed the 2016 minimum wage increase, spoke in favor of the bill. She said giving people opportunity to work is more meaningful to them than how their wage compares to others.

Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, agreed.

“My concern throughout my working lifetime, which began a long time ago… I was never concerned about the rate of pay, I just wanted a job,” Fransworth said.  

Rebecca McHood, a Gilbert resident, told the committee she grew up poor, the youngest of nine children.

“All of us worked through high school and college and to help pay the family bills,” she said. “Poor families help their families pay the bills.”

McHood later told Arizona Mirror the bill is “abominable” and “elitist”.

“It’s vengeful. It’s gross,” she said. McHood said HB2523 goes against conservative values of “supporting families, working hard, paying your own way, and picking yourself up by the bootstraps.”

She added, “How can you pick yourself up by the bootstraps if your boots don’t have straps?”

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