National and local research has shown that raising the minimum wage is good for the economy. Yet, despite an avalanche of calls from workers, clergy, enlightened businesspeople, mental health experts and doctors, Hawaii lawmakers let the minimum wage bill die in conference.
In the face of informed testimony from those who serve the poor, our overwhelmingly blue Legislature turned a deaf ear, and punted. In one hearing after another, a small group of the same businesses testified about how hard it was to make time to come to the state Capitol to oppose paying their workers a living wage. Meanwhile, many on minimum wage were completing their first shift and heading to a second job to scrape together a living. They could not afford to go advocate for themselves.
Lawmakers heard the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii say over and over again that “raising the minimum age is not the right solution.” It certainly isn’t the only solution, but can anyone doubt that it would help?
Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and whom no one will accuse of being a liberal, said this year, relative to raising the federal minimum wage: “We’re going to listen. We’re not going out and opposing.” It would help if Hawaii’s Chamber did likewise.
It would also have helped if businesses that position themselves as leaders, who claim that aloha is at the center of all they do, whose advertisements say they really care about their customers, had raised their voices.
All the major banks, Kaiser Permanente, and others have moved to $15 or more for their own employees. They see the positive impact on morale, productivity and reduced turnover. Yet none offered the public reassurance that raising the minimum wage is good for business. Contrary to what lawmakers repeatedly heard from opponents, the sky did not fall for businesses that are already paying $15 an hour or more.
In welcome contrast, enlightened small businesses such as South Shore Design on Oahu and Poggenpohl Hawaii on Maui reported that paying $20 an hour or more has helped them — and their employees — thrive.
Lawmakers also have businesspeople within their ranks who attested to the wisdom of a living wage: Newly elected Rep. Tina Wildberger from Maui has been paying workers at her small business, Kihei Ice, $15 an hour for some time now. Sen. Russell Ruderman’s company has created more than 200 jobs on Hawaii island through Island Naturals; he strongly advocated for a living wage.
Minimum wage workers are in more desperate need of a raise than any of the testifiers warning about “unintended consequences” — or any of the lawmakers listening to them.
Putting the minimum wage on track to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s own self-sufficiency standard of $17 an hour for a single childless worker, would have helped move thousands off our sidewalks. It would have kept more from joining the tarp-covered villages that dot the landscape in Honolulu, the houseless capital of the nation.
The need is as obvious as it is great. Lawmakers’ failure to move toward a living wage can only mean that they find the epidemic of houselessness, and nearly half of all families living in poverty, acceptable in the Aloha State. We spend millions trying to attract tourists while thousands of local residents live in squalor — until they are swept away from time to time like opala.
Maryland, with a Republican governor but a strong Democratic Assembly, took a veto-proof vote in March to move their workers to $15 an hour by 2025. Hawaii’s cost of living is higher than Maryland’s — yet our lawmakers failed to reach agreement in conference. One lawmaker reportedly called the outcome “bittersweet.” No, it was just bitter.
First published in the Honolulu Star Advertiser, April 30, 2019. Reproduced here with permission.