Voters in two states and Washington, D.C., approved ballot measures during this year’s midterm elections that will raise the minimum wage — an increasingly frequent occurrence.
The trio of measures hasn’t drawn as much attention as some of the more expensive, headline-grabbing 2022 ballot propositions in a swath of states. But the incoming wage laws will have a major impact on low-income workers and small businesses in Washington, D.C., Nebraska, and Nevada.
Question 2 in Nevada was leading with 54% of the vote a day after midterm election polls closed. The ballot provision raises the minimum wage in the Silver State to $12 per hour by July 2024. That’s an important issue for many in a state that still largely relies on a service economy. The successful ballot proposition would also set the federal minimum wage as a floor, meaning Nevada’s would increase if it is exceeded in the future by the federal minimum wage, which is now $7.25.
Initiative 82 in Washington, D.C., applies only to tipped workers. Employers are currently allowed to pay tipped workers, like servers, below minimum wage to a floor of some $5 per hour if those workers’ hourly wage plus tips clocks in above the district’s mandated minimum wage of $16.10. If their hourly income with tips falls below that, restaurant owners are already required to make up that difference.
With its passage, employers will be required to pay $16.10 base wages per hour to tipped employees by 2027, which is the minimum wage for nontipped employees. With over 90% of the votes counted, the initiative leads with 74% approval.
In Nebraska, voters approved Initiative 433, which incrementally raises the minimum wage in the ruby-red Cornhusker State from its current $9-per-hour level to $15 over the next four years. The measure passed with some 60% support.
Nebraska’s measure is notable because it mirrors that of proposals from the Left, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who has unsuccessfully tried to increase the federal minimum wage to that level.
While a policy supported by Sanders might have seemed doomed to fail in deeply conservative Nebraska, ballot measures to raise state minimum wages have historically performed very well, even in Republican states. Just two of the last 25 ballot measures to raise state minimum wages have failed, with the last time being in 1996.
Victor Claar, an economics professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, told the Washington Examiner that he doesn’t see the minimum wage debate in states as a Republican/Democrat issue for voters as much as other political hot potatoes. Rather, minimum wage increase proposals are an economic issue that has a sort of populist appeal that voters on both the Right and the Left might feel comfortable throwing their weight behind.
“There is a reason that a lot of Donald Trump’s economic policy, especially as it relates to foreign trade, sounds a whole lot like Bernie Sanders or Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren’s economic policies,” Claar said.
“Economic populism is really, really hot right now, and if you go to the right part of the Republican Party or the right part of the Democratic Party, you’ll hear a lot of rhetoric that presumes to be looking out for the American family and trying to do things to make their lives easier,” he added.
It is also worth noting that the federal minimum wage hasn’t been revised upward for more than a decade, with the level remaining at $7.25 since 2009. Claar said that could be one reason why state and local voters have seen better success with raising it without the help of federally elected lawmakers.
“The more local the region of governments, the more latitude you’ve got to raise the minimum wage however you care to,” said Claar.
There was some financial support backing the Nebraska initiative’s passage. Several groups supported the ballot measure, including Nebraska Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, which touted more than 300 businesses as part of its coalition.
The Washington Examiner spoke with Dave Titterington, owner of Wild Bird Habitat Stores in Lincoln and Omaha, following passage of the initiative. Titterington said he supported the initiative because it is only fair to workers.
Titterington said his business, which is going on 30 years, has always paid well above minimum wage.
“From my point of view, I don’t look at employees as a liability. I look at them as an asset, and so we consider giving them a fair wage as basically an investment in our business,” he said.
When Titterington was asked why he thinks states that have large populations of fiscally conservative residents, like Nebraska, support raising the minimum wage, he said most small business owners can put themselves in their workers’ shoes, as they were at one time working for wages before being able to build up their companies.
“They know how difficult it is if you’re only being paid minimum wage,” Titterington said.
Still, opponents of raising the minimum wage argue that doing so hurts small businesses by decreasing their ability to compete with large corporations and can end up harming the economy of states in the long run.
There are also those who fear that because businesses have to pay their workers more, they may be forced to lay some off or offset the higher costs by raising prices — a prospect that is not a positive one at a time when the country is experiencing such explosive inflation.