A ballot initiative to incrementally raise the Nebraska minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2026 stirred debate in the 1st Congressional District’s focused hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the state capitol.
The testimonies were largely in favor of increasing the wage.
The initiative is designed to raise the current state minimum wage from $9 an hour to $15 by increasing the price by $1.50 every year until 2026. If passed, the minimum wage would grow to $10.50 per hour on Jan. 1, 2023, and would be adjusted annually thereafter to account for increases in cost of living.
Initiative 433 will appear on the ballot in the Nov. 8 election.
Secretary of State Bob Evnen hosted the hearing Tuesday, Oct. 18, where 16 proponents and three opponents testified. This hearing was the final of three on the minimum wage initiative, representing each of Nebraska’s congressional districts.
Supporters of the initiative argued that minimum wage workers who are paid less than $19,000 a year are not bringing in enough money to sustain themselves.
Kate Wolfe, a representative for Raise the Wage Nebraska, said a
minimum wage raise would not only boost the economy by increasing the workforce but also benefit working-class families.
She emphasized that the majority of people benefitting from this bill would be adults, citing a report from the National Employment Law Project, which states that 75% of those who would benefit are people over the age of 20.
“We know that doing so will provide positive outcomes for many Nebraska families,” Wolfe said. “Too many parents work multiple jobs to make ends meet and often must make the difficult decision between paying rent or putting food on the table.”
The opposition, however, argued raising the minimum wage would merely raise rates for business owners and force them to reduce staff.
Katie Bohlmeyer, the policy and research coordinator for the Lincoln Independent Business Association, said that a $9 minimum wage was set as a price floor intended for teenagers and those first entering the workforce.
She said every business owner she has talked to has a starting salary over the $9 minimum wage, largely due to Nebraska’s low unemployment rate. For small businesses, she said, a government-mandated pay raise could mean shutting down for good.
“It is no secret that businesses do not like government regulations and overreach,” Bohlmeyer said. “But that is exactly what this mandate is — the government forcing businesses to adhere to their rules. However, the current market sets the wages.”
The two other opponents of the initiatives shared the belief that a raise in the minimum wage would be detrimental to smaller businesses.
Entrepreneur and small business owner Rex Schroder said a $15 base pay is not a living wage for anyone and that this change would mean fewer hours for his employees.
“A living wage is a fabrication of the left’s imagination,” Schroder
said. “Having the government force me to pay my employees more per hour is one thing, but the government can’t tell me how much I have to pay my employees per week.”
Some of the testifying proponents, however, were business owners who felt the minimum wage increase would be beneficial, including for improving employee morale.
Cinnamon Dokken, owner of A Novel Idea Bookstore in Lincoln, said she could not get wages as high as she would like without a statewide raise to boost the economy.
Julie Sonderup, owner of Lincoln businesses Cycle Works bike shop and Moose’s Tooth, called her decision to set base wages at $15 one of the best she’s ever made. She described her employees as more interested and happier people who care about the work they do.
“It’s raised the level of customer service that those employees are willing to provide,” Sonderup said. “They’re all in. They want to learn about the products we have on a much deeper level than when we would just have the average person coming in to need a paycheck.”
Other proponents testified on behalf of themselves, sharing personal stories of their inability to provide for their families.
Local residents Kimberly and Adrian Baker, a mother and her 15-
year-old son, both took the stand to share their story of struggling with current wages. Kimberly shared that although she has a bachelor’s degree and has worked in customer service, academic tutoring and claims management, she has never made more than $15 an hour.
After 20 years in the workforce, Kimberly Baker said she is still unable to provide housing, so the two live with her parents. Adrian Baker described his struggles with not being able to spend time with his mother, as she spends much of her time at work.
“My mother can’t afford to feed me, so I’m on free school lunch,” Adrian Baker said. “She can’t send me to college, so I can’t get a degree. And she can’t afford independent housing, which she has described as being cooped up.”