Address flaws in bill creating ‘training wage’

The News TribuneFebruary 14, 2013 

The concept of a “training wage” – one that would allow an employer to pay less than the minimum wage while a young worker learns the rope – makes a lot of sense.

But Senate Bill 5275 – the training-wage legislation that supporters expect will be approved by the Senate – has some flaws that need addressing, either in the House or with floor amendments in the Senate.

Supporters are promoting the bill as a way to provide more job opportunities for young, inexperienced people. But SB 5275 doesn’t specify that the lower wage it would allow – 75 percent of Washington’s $9.19 hourly minimum wage (or $6.89 per hour) – would only apply to young or inexperienced workers.

The bill would allow a company with 50 or fewer employees to pay up to 10 percent of its workforce at the lower wage for 680 hours. There’s nothing in the bill to prevent employers from hiring older, experienced workers at the lower wage; letting them go after 680 hours (85 days of eight-hour shifts); and replacing them with more lower-paid workers.

To address that problem, the bill should specify that the training wage would only apply to young workers – perhaps under 18. And there should be some mechanism for preventing employers from merely churning lower-wage workers as a way to avoid paying the minimum wage.

The way SB 5275 is written, employers are only penalized if they discharge the training-wage worker before he or she has logged 680 hours. In those cases, the employer cannot hire another training-wage worker for that position for one year. There’s no penalty for firing the worker after 680 hours; he or she can be immediately replaced by another training-wage employee.

Another problem with the bill is the length of the training-wage period – 680 hours. That seems like a long time for a person to get the knack of a minimum-wage job, which by its very nature requires a relatively low level of skill. Would it really take a person 85 days (of eight-hour shifts) to learn a minimum-wage job?

There are just too many problems with this bill the way it’s written, leaving loopholes for employers to keep replacing some of their workers with ones earning much lower wages.

Although most employers probably wouldn’t want to create that kind of divided workplace, this legislation doesn’t provide enough safeguards to prevent some from exploiting the training wage as a way to reduce labor costs when the real goal should be to provide more opportunities for young people.

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