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Legislators argue for a minimum wage increase

Rep. Ryan Winkler, chair of the Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs, visited the University of Minnesota, Morris on Thursday, Feb. 6 to discuss the state of Minnesota’s economy. Winkler told the audience of primarily students than the Minnesota Legislature will debate raising the minimum wage this session.

MORRIS – Legislators in the Minnesota House and Senate are prepared to increase the minimum wage when the legislature convenes later this month, they just haven’t agreed by how much.

In preparation for the upcoming legislative session, Rep. Ryan Winkler visited the University of Minnesota, Morris on Thursday, Feb. 6 for a discussion on the minimum wage and the Minnesota economy.

Members of the Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs have been touring around the state since last summer, sharing information on current employment statistics and gathering thoughts from residents about the economic recovery.

“The mission of that committee is to go out and talk to ordinary, working Minnesotans around the state and try to better understand the nature of our current economy and how it’s affecting people who are working,” said Winkler, who chairs the committee.

During his presentation, Winkler argued that although Minnesota’s economy is recovering faster than the rest of the country, the recovery is not impacting all Minnesotans the same. In 2011, one in four Minnesotans, about 1.4 million people, were considered low income because of both job loss and deteriorating wages.

“Even while our economy generally looks good, the benefits of that economy are not evenly spread according to race, gender and age,” said Winkler.

One of the challenges to the state economy is underemployment – individuals working part time when they want full time work or individuals who have a higher level of education and training than is needed for the job they have.

About 71 percent of Minnesotans between 16 and 65 are working, but only 50 percent of them work full time, while only 35 percent of working-age adults have full time employment, Winkler said.

A significant percentage of Minnesotans, about 49 percent, are also over-educated for the jobs they hold, a statistic Winkler said is true at all levels of job qualification.

“I would not ever say that education is not important … but if you want to look economy wide, just putting more education on the table for more people is not going to be sole answer because it doesn’t matter how educated you are if the majority of jobs are in food service, retail, or taking care of people in their homes,” said Winkler.

Winkler argued that a compounding problem is that many jobs in Minnesota – including those in the fastest-growing categories like personal care and healthcare support – pay wages that are too low for working families, forcing even working families to turn to public assistance to make ends meet.

“Unless we do something differently, the deterioration of wages is going to continue as we concentrate more a­nd more jobs in those categories,” said Winkler.

To help address some of these problems, the committee is looking a series of reforms to help align education with available jobs and an increase to the state minimum wage.

The Minnesota House has introduced a bill to raise the state minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2015, while the Minnesota Senate is looking at an increase to $7.75.

“Between the House and Senate we have to come up with some sort of minimum wage package that makes sense,” said Winkler.

Winkler also suggested the state may look at increasing the rates in state-supported industries like nursing homes to increased wages and put pressure on private industries to also increase wages.

“Through those care-type jobs, Minnesota is very much a low-age employer,” said Winkler. “We could use our spending power to create upward pressure on wages.”

Rep. Jay McNamar, who joined Winkler on the panel agreed that it was important to increase the wages for nursing home workers in the state.

“They have the hardest doggone job in the world … some make less than $10 an hour,” said McNamar. “They have a tough time making a living. They deserve more and we need to raise that minimum wage.”