Labor leaders pursuing minimum wage increase initiative

Posted: Friday, March 30, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- State labor leaders say they plan to take their case for a minimum wage increase to the voters instead of waiting for the Legislature to act.

Alaska AFL-CIO leader Mano Frey is one of the sponsors of a proposed wage increase initiative that calls for increasing the minimum wage from the current $5.65 an hour to $7.15 an hour in 2003 and automatically adjusting it for inflation thereafter.

The measure, which was certified earlier this month by the Division of Elections, also would set Alaska's wage at $1 above the federal minimum.

If labor supporters can gather about 29,000 signatures by early next year, the initiative would go on the November 2002 ballot.

Frey said labor leaders are going ahead with the ballot proposal because two bills that would bump up the wage are stalled in the Legislature.

''We're concerned that the legislation seems to be mired down in the Labor and Commerce Committee in the House,'' Frey said. ''We'd like to add a little incentive to them to do the right thing.''

He said the state's minimum wage is the lowest on the West Coast and is not high enough to keep a family of three out of poverty.

Gov. Tony Knowles introduced a bill that would raise the wage to $6.40 in October and then to $7.15 a year later. It calls for automatic increases after that to reflect inflation.

Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, introduced a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $6.40 in 2002 and $6.90 in 2003. It would not provide automatic increases for inflation.

The governor's bill has had no hearings.

When Kott's bill was heard early in the session in Labor and Commerce, restaurant owners testified the bill could hurt their businesses and force them to lay off employees or cut benefits. It has not moved since.

Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Anchorage, said she's looking at a couple of issues that came up in those hearings.

One is the possibility of a tip credit, which would allow employers to pay less to workers who make tips. It's a difficult issue, Murkowski said. Some people have said they will not support the bill without a tip credit, while others refuse to consider the bill with a tip credit.

Murkowski said she's also looking at ways to make an existing provision that lets employers pay teen-agers less than the minimum more usable for employers.

She plans to bring the bill before the committee again before the session ends, Murkowski said.

Frey said labor groups are going ahead with their initiative plans partly because they can't wait. They attempted to put a minimum wage hike on the ballot in 2000, but got a late start and fell short of collecting enough valid signatures.

Labor advocates also hope the move might spur action in the Legislature, Frey said.

If the initiative's supporters collect enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot next fall, the only way the Legislature can keep it from going to voters is to pass substantially similar legislation.

That gives legislators less flexibility than they would have this session if they want to pre-empt a ballot effort.

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