Are there legitimate reasons for "training wages," or is the idea really meant to circumvent the minimum wage? Seattle considered the idea during its fight over whether to raise the minimum wage to $15, and ultimately, rejected it.
Now the question is being asked at the state level. Low-wage workers say a new initiative to establish a hourly $9.50 training wage—filed late last month by the Washington Restaurant Association (WRA), the lobbying group representing fast food chains like McDonald's and Subway—isn't accurately labeled. Tomorrow, a judge in Thurston County will consider a legal challenge brought by the workers to change the initiative's language from "training wage" to "subminimum wage."
To bring you up to speed: The WRA filed an initiative on March 28 that would raise the Washington minimum wage to $12 by 2020. This is a smaller wage increase—by $1.50—than what is sought by labor groups in a competing initiative. But it's also an sign of how far the Fight for $15 has come: the WRA itself is proposing increasing wages, even though it has fought efforts to raise the wages in Sea-Tac and Tacoma.
Still, the initiative would also create a $9.50 hourly "training wage" which employers could pay workers for the first six months after they're hired. Workers believe the provision amounts to a massive loophole in the law. Call it what it is, they say: a sub-minimum wage.
"Allowing a six-month, subminimum wage completely defeats the purpose of raising wages for poverty level workers," said Ariana Davis, a Safeway employee and sponsor of Raise Up Washington (I-1433)—the initiative backed by Democrats and major labor groups. That initiative would raise the statewide minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020. It contains no training or sub-minimum wage.
"Six months working below minimum wage can be the difference between paying rent, making child care payments, and other necessities," Davis said. "This is a huge issue that voters need to know about to make an informed vote."
Davis and labor groups believe the so-called training wage could lock fast food, seasonal, and other kinds of workers who may not be on the job for more than six months into subminimum wages. And they claim training for most low wage jobs takes hours or weeks—not months.
Here's the initiative language (I-1518) from the Washington Restaurant Association:
Beginning January 1, 2017, employers may pay training wages to new employees during a training period at the minimum wage rate of nine dollars and fifty cents per hour or eighty percent of the applicable state minimum wage, whichever is greater.
The following restrictions apply to the use of a training wage:
(a) The training period may last for a maximum of one hundred eighty days starting on the employee's first day of employment;
(b) Employers may pay training wages to a new employee only once per employee; and
(c) Employees being paid at training wages may not constitute more than ten percent of an employer's workforce, except that employers with fewer than ten employees may pay training wages to
one employee at a time.
The Washington Restaurant Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment. I'll update if I hear back.