Hawaii’s minimum wage would rise to $15 an hour in 2021 if a Senate bill survives the legislative session, but it could face resistance in the House.

It would mark the second time in three years that lawmakers upped the wage. It was just $7.25 in 2014 and is currently scheduled to rise to $10.10 in January.

What hasn’t changed much in three years’ time are the arguments for and against raising the wage.

Senator Gilbert Keith Agaran. 3 feb 2017
Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran’s committee on labor advanced a minimum wage bill Tuesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Supporters like the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, for example, said there is no way someone can live on $10.10 an hour, which amounts to an annually salary of about $21,000. Hawaii is just too expensive, from housing to food to utilities. If workers are paid more, they will contribute more to the economy, the organization said.

“Hawaii has the lowest wages in the nation after adjusting for our cost of living, which is the highest in the nation,” the center’s Nicole Woo said in testimony. “As a result, many of our state’s families are teetering at the edge of poverty and homelessness.”

But opponents like the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii said small businesses would struggle to absorb the higher wages and would ultimately pass those costs on to consumers. Hawaii is already an expensive place to do business, in part because it is the only state that makes pre-paid health care coverage mandatory for employees working at least 20 hours a week.

Rep Aaron Johanson conf committee1. 26 april 2016.
Rep Aaron Ling Johanson deferred House measures to raise the minimum wage, but said he’d consider the Senate bill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Besides, groups like the chamber argue, a minimum wage is an entry-level wage and not the “livable” wage that groups like the Appleseed Center refer to.

“Should this bill pass, it will seriously harm local businesses, the state economy, job creation and potentially the very employees it is trying to help,” the chamber’s Pono Chong testified.

With wage bills in both chambers, it was a scramble Tuesday at the Capitol.

At 8:30 a.m., dozens of lobbyists and other trackers of minimum wage legislation spoke to state House members at a hearing on the Capitol’s third floor.

Many of the same people then scurried down to the Capitol basement, where senators convened at a 9 a.m. hearing on a wage measure of their own.

The House measures did not pass. Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, chair of the House Labor and Public Employment Committee, deferred action on all three.

The measures, respectively, would have allowed counties to establish a higher minimum wage than the state’s, required the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to peg wage changes to Honolulu’s consumer price index, and delete the tip credit used to calculate how much money employers can deduct from minimum-wage workers such as waiters and valets who rely on tips from customers.

That last measure, House Bill 5, called for a $15 minimum wage by 2021.

$22 In 2022 Unlikely

Johanson indicated he wanted representatives to focus on other labor issues before his committee, especially relating to family leave time and paid sick leave. He said that both bills, which passed Tuesday, can serve to “uplift” employees and impact some of the very same workers making a low wage.

But his counterpart, Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, led the advance of a bill that would up the state’s hourly wage to $15 in 2021.

Senate Bill 107, introduced by Sen. Karl Rhoads, would phase in the increase annually. It would also increase the tip credit amount.

The tip credit figure would remain blank for now as the bill wends its way through the Legislature. It is currently 75 cents per hour.

The next hurdle for SB 107 is the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

As of Tuesday afternoon, no other minimum wage bills had been scheduled to be heard this week.

One of those measures, from Rep. Kaniela Ing, called for repealing the tip credit and making the minimum wage $22 by 2022.

Should SB 107 cross over to the House, it would end up in Johanson’s committee. He said there was a general feeling from other representatives that the time to act on raising the minimum wage might be in 2018, when the last increase (from $9.25 to $10.10) will take effect.

“But the Senate vehicle is obviously moving, and we’ll take a look from there,” he said.

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