$15 was never on the table

By: - June 13, 2019 6:02 am
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Even with Gov. Steve Sisolak signing legislation to increase the minimum wage and mandate that certain businesses provide paid sick leave, workers’ rights activists say the fight to improve the economic well-being of Nevadans is far from over.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not a big enough step,” said Erika Washington, the Nevada director of Make it Work. “It’s not going to help enough folks, give them enough breathing room or help them live their version of the American dream.”

Washington says Assembly Bill 456, which increases the wage, and Senate Bill 312, which mandates paid sick leave “shows folks we can move the needle, but we just need to push a little bit harder.”

The push resumes Friday when a Fight for $15 strike focused on raising the federal minimum wage is planned around the country, including in Southern Nevada.

In addition to pushing employers and corporations, like McDonald’s, to pay livable wages, Brian Shepherd, the Deputy Executive Director of SEIU Nevada Local 1107, said they will be demanding better worker protections. “The Fight for $15 was never just about raising the minimum wage but about ways to improve people’s lives,” he said.

$12 is “palatable”

Nevada’s minimum wage has been stuck at $8.25 — $7.25 if the employer provides some sort of health plan — for a decade.

In 2017, an estimated one in five workers in Nevada, or 263,384 people, made less than $12, while one in three workers in Nevada, 447,154 people, made less than $15. Of those earning less than $12 an hours, 40 percent were Hispanic workers, nearly 32 percent were black, and 24 percent were white.

Too many people, Washington said, are working multiple jobs to stay afloat. “Some people are working two jobs and still qualifying for public assistance,” she said. “Too many people are being left in the margins.”

For years, unions, economists, workers’ rights groups and low-wage earners have been demanding a more livable amount — $15. That fight came to the 2017 legislative session when Democratic Assemblyman William McCurdy introduce legislation to increase the wage to $15 by 2022.

It was one of three wage bills being proposed during the session two years ago, and by far the most aggressive. However, two months after Assembly Bill 175 was presented, an amendment was added that stripped the $15 an hour component and changed the bill altogether. A watered down wage measure passed the Legislature in 2015, but was vetoed by former Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Two years later, despite Democrats possessing a near supermajority under a Democratic governor, $15 was never on the table.

Groups lobbying for higher wages aren’t sure how lawmakers landed on $12, which equates to $24,960 a year before taxes, or how it was determined that was sufficient to support working families.

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, who presented the bill, described $12 as palatable.”

But is it adequate?

Jeff Waddoups, the chair of the Economics Department at UNLV, told Nevada Current near the end of the session that $8.25 in 2009 is expected to be the equivalent to $11 in 2024, assuming 2 percent annual inflation. When adjusting the hourly rate set in 2009 by the Consumer Price Index, $8.25 is the equivalent to $10 in 2019.

The eventual $12 figure represents “about a 9% raise over what would’ve prevailed had the $8.25 minimum wage increased with inflation over the entire time period,” Waddoups said, adding that the proposal “doesn’t seem very dramatic when looked at that way.”

When the long-awaited wage legislation dropped midway through the session hours before a bill introduction deadline, the first posted version called for $12 by 2020. The Legislative Counsel Bureau later said it posted the wrong version of the bill. The next day the language was updated to a gradual increase over five years.

Lawmakers spent the remainder of the session hearing from Nevadans about the difficulties surviving on low-wages, and opponents who worried small businesses would bear the brunt of such an increase.

At one point during an April hearing, Frierson proposed an amendment to increase the wage faster to get $12 by 2023. However, that amendment was never approved.

In addition to a wage increase, lawmakers passed Assembly Joint Resolution 10, which will let voters decide whether to amend the state constitution to eliminate the two-tiered wage so that the higher wage would apply to all minimum wage workers. If passed that will go into effect in July 2024, the same time the minimum wage will top out at $12. 

While unions like SEIU have pushed for $15, they say $12 will still help a significant number of Nevadans. “It will impact hundreds of thousands of Nevadans,” Shepherd said. “That is significant.”

 50 employees or more and .019230 hours

Along with AB 456, Sisolak signed Senate Bill 312 Wednesday, which requires businesses with 50 or more employees to allow employees to accrue .019230 hours of paid time off per hour of work performed — 40 hours a year for full-time workers.

Employers can’t deny requests from workers to use paid time off nor can they retaliate for using it. The bill also opens up an avenue for the Nevada Labor Commission to enforce and penalize companies who either don’t offer paid leave or punish workers when they use it.

Similar to the wage bill, paid leave legislation wasn’t an easy sell to industry. The legislation’s original employee threshold was 25 employees. (A Democratic proposal in Congress, the Healthy Families Act, would apply to businesses with 15 employees.)

Facing opposition from business groups, lawmakers raised the threshold to 50 employees. Time to Care Nevada estimates the change excludes 192,000 Nevadans.

Time to Care Coalition, a statewide coalition of 24 organizations including the nonprofit Make the Road Nevada, bused members from Las Vegas hundreds of miles up to Carson City to explain to lawmakers how the lack of paid sick leave leaves them and their families in an impossible situation where they have to choose between foregoing a paycheck — when someone makes minimum wage, they need every hour to make ends meet — and going to work despite being sick or needing to take care of an ill loved one.

With the dust settling on the 2019 session, groups are still figuring out next steps and future battles.

Shepherd said the next session could center around efforts that further expands workers rights such as legislation to help workers with inconsistent scheduling or providing better protections against workplace violence.

Advocates may lobby for strengthening the wage law by adding provisions for adjusting the wage for inflation after 2024. “That way we don’t have to keep going back to the legislature to ask for a wage increase,” Shepherd said.

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.