President-elect Joe Biden's proposal to boost the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour reignited arguments Friday in Louisiana on whether an increase makes sense.
Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, praised the proposal. "This is wonderful news and very long overdue," Moller said.
"We know that the economic crisis has disproportionately hit low-wage workers," Moller added. "The best thing that we can do for low-income workers it to pay them more money."
But Jim Patterson, vice-president for government relations with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said free markets should determine wage levels.
Patterson also disputed the notion that families routinely rely on minimum wage jobs to support themselves.
"The thing that gets lost in all the rhetoric is the minimum wage is not supposed to be a living wage," he said. "Generally it is a training wage, to give you an opportunity to get on the first rung of the ladder and then you can leverage yourself into a higher-level position."
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Biden's proposal carries extra weight in Louisiana because, since the state does not have its own minimum wage, the federal minimum is the state minimum.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, like Biden a Democrat, has tried and failed for five years to establish a state minimum wage, and make it higher than today's federal level.
Last year Edwards proposed a state rate of $9 per hour by 2021, which would have been boosted to $10 per hour later this year and be linked to inflation. The plan died, and the issue has generally pitted Democratic legislators behind the push and GOP members opposed.
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Biden, who will be sworn in as president on Wednesday, made the federal hike part of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus plan unveiled Thursday that will be submitted to a closely-divided U. S. Congress. "No one – no one – should work, as millions are doing today, 40-hours a week at a job and still live below the poverty line," Biden said at a press conference last week.
The federal minimum wage was last increased in 2009.
State officials familiar with the topic said that, if Biden's proposal clears Congress, they expect the higher rates would be phased in.
Dawn Starns, senior state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said estimates before the coronavirus pandemic showed a hike in the minimum wage could cost 10,000 employees their jobs over several years.
"What we have always said is let the market set the wages," Starns said. "Right now, we are living in crazy times with the pandemic. Things have had to change significantly as it relates to wages because of tough choices."
Starns said mandating a higher wage would force employers to decide whether to reduce the hours of employees or the number of employees.
"They have to make a cut somewhere if it doesn't work within their budget model," Starns said.
Just under half of workers – 48.7% – make less than $15 per hour, according to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Figures show 4.6% of employees earn minimum wage but others earn $9 or $11 or $13 hourly.
State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, chairman-elect of the Legislative Black Caucus, said Biden's proposal came at a perfect time.
"Many of America's frontline workers – the men and women who keep our nation functioning – earn the minimum," James said in a text message. "Their work must be valued. Minimum wage workers keep us afloat, especially in time of crisis."
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James said his comments represent his own views.
However, the Legislative Black Caucus has long backed efforts to establish a minimum wage in Louisiana and raise it above today's level.
Matthew Haller, head of government relations for the International Franchise Association, said $15 per hour wages would be relatively high in rural Georgia and West Virginia.
However, the pandemic has caused sales to crater at restaurants and small retailers. "It's the straw that breaks the camel's back," Haller said.
The debate in the Louisiana Legislature has usually played out in the House Labor committee.
Rep. Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge and chairwoman of the panel, praised Biden's proposal.
"I love it," Carpenter said. "It is sorely needed."
Carpenter said some low-wage workers opted to rely on their stimulus checks last year rather than returning to work.
"If they (employers) were paying people in the beginning a decent wage people would feel more compelled to come back to work," she said.
Moller, whose group monitors and reports on public policy and how it affects low-to-moderate-income families, disputed arguments that hikes in the minimum wage means job losses.
"Cities and states that have raised the minimum wage are not seeing businesses flee like we have been told would happen," he said.
The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this report