With governor’s urging, Louisiana Senate panel advances minimum wage, equal pay bills _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Gov. John Bel Edwards testifies at Labor & Industrial Relations Committee in favor of SB 254, the Louisiana Equal Pay Act and for SB 269 which calls for an increase in the state minimum wage. At right is Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans , author of Minimum Wage SB 269 and at left is Sen. Jean-Paul Morrell, author of the Equal Pay SB 254.

Kenya Harris recalls taking the city bus from classes at Baton Rouge Community College to her minimum wage job at a fast food restaurant off Sherwood Forest across town — changing into her uniform in the restaurant's bathroom each day.

"It was so hard," she said, looking back nearly 10 years later. "I didn't even have my own place."

A single mother, she said the $5.85 minimum wage at the time was barely enough to make ends meet, much less set aside money for larger investments, like a home.

"I've always worked just to pay bills — just to get by," said Harris, 37, who moved on to work at Walmart but has since focused on her own poetry and faith-based business.

With two young children at home, Harris quit college and was working two jobs, as a telemarketer in the day and again in fast food in the evenings. "It crippled me as far as time away from my kids," she said.

Harris' story is typical for workers across the state in jobs that pay the $7.25 minimum wage, which ends up being about $15,080 annually for a 40-hour work week, pre-taxes.

Monday is the eighth anniversary of the most recent increase in the federal minimum wage. Louisiana, as one of five states that has no minimum wage, relies on the federal government to set the rate.

"The basic jobs that pay minimum wage, even now, there's no room for growth because you don't have extra finances to move yourself to something new," Harris said. "It leaves you in a stuck place."

An estimated 53,000 Louisiana residents are paid the $7.25 per hour minimum wage.

Setting a state level that is higher than the federal government — which has become a national progressive movement in recent years — was a key campaign issue for Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat. But Edwards hasn't managed to gain traction on the idea in the State Capitol, despite repeatedly supporting legislation the past two years and even testifying at hearings on the issue and promoting the idea in high-profile speeches.

Edwards has often evoked stories like Harris' to help promote the need for what he deems a "modest" increase to help struggling families. Most recently, he recommended raising the minimum wage in Louisiana gradually over two years to $8.50 an hour.

"It's absolutely still a priority," Edwards' spokesman Richard Carbo said in a recent interview. "It would go a long way for the families of Louisiana."

The governor expects to again make it a campaign issue when he runs for re-election in 2019, if the state Legislature continues to reject the idea, he said.

"It was one of the top issues in the campaign," Carbo said. "I think that's something we're hoping to (promote more) over the next few months."

Last year, LSU's Public Policy Research Lab found that 76 percent of Louisiana residents support increasing the minimum wage.

But a strong, vocal segment of the business community objects to the state setting its own minimum wage and say it could create a hardship for small-business owners.

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"The bottom line is it costs jobs," said Dawn Starns, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. "This is not a party issue at all. It's about a business owner's bottom line. They can only do so much with the dollars they have coming in the door."

Supporters of minimum wage hikes say they provide a boost to low-income families and reduce costs of public assistance programs. Critics say they place a potentially job-killing burden on small businesses.

Dueling studies released last month appeared to lend credence on both sides, with conflicting findings on the impact of Seattle's minimum wage increase.

A study from the University of Washington concluded that the city's $2 minimum wage increase to $13 in 2016 led to fewer hours for low-wage earners and a drop on total payroll for low-wage jobs.

Meanwhile, a study from University of California, Berkeley that focused on the restaurant industry concluded that pay raises for minimum wage workers had no impact on employment.

President Donald Trump, who Louisiana voters overwhelmingly supported in last year's election, has offered occasionally vacillating positions on the minimum wage, but he has generally expressed support for states setting their own above the federal level.

Starns said her organization has taken no position on a federal wage hike because there has been no legislation that has gained traction. Any proposal would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, she said.

Not all small-business owners oppose the idea.

Camille Moran, state coordinator for Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, is the owner of 4 Seasons Christmas Tree and Produce Farm in Natchitoches, where she pays employees at least $10 an hour.

"I will not start anyone at less than $10, and most of my employees make more than that," she said.

Moran said she thinks it's "shameful" the state Legislature hasn't acted to raise the minimum wage in Louisiana.

"It's not a livable wage," she said. "A family of even four cannot survive on $7.25."

She said she believes paying more has made her staff more productive and increased the quality of her business.

"It helps the economy in the long run," Moran said.

But Starns said she worries setting the minimum wage on a state level would prompt a never-ending battle over what the right amount is and create uncertainty for businesses looking to expand or open up shop in a state.

"For us, creating a state minimum wage will put us in line to have to fight this every year," she said. "It's not the best environment for folks who need jobs or people looking to grow their business."

"What we have to go back to is we have a broken education system here in Louisiana," Starns said. "We have a cycle of poverty and have to break out of that."

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.