Lawmakers asked to increase state’s minimum wage

? Advocates for labor and Kansans with disabilities urged lawmakers Tuesday to increase the state minimum wage, which at $2.65 per hour is the lowest in the nation.

Andy Sanchez, executive secretary and treasurer of the Kansas AFL-CIO, said increasing the state minimum wage would help the economy by putting “money in the hands of workers soon and the economy just as soon.”

He said the current state rate, which according to Department of Labor officials affects 20,000 Kansas workers, is an “embarrassment.”

Senate Bill 160, introduced by Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, would increase the state minimum wage to $7.25 per hour on Sept. 1. The current federal minimum wage of $6.55 per hour is scheduled to increase to $7.25 per hour on July 24.

The Senate Commerce Committee held a public hearing on the bill but took no action. Chairman David Wysong, R-Mission Hills, said he would canvass committee members to see what they want to do.

“If it is thought we want to work this bill, it will be next week,” Wysong said.

Shannon Jones, executive director of the Statewide Independent Living Council, said more Kansans with disabilities would enter the work force and become “taxpayers rather than tax takers” if the state increased the wage rate.

Heidi Zeller of Lawrence, who is coordinator of the “Raise the Wage” project sponsored by the Kansas Action Network, said the federal poverty level for a single person is $10,830 per year, which is nearly double what the state minimum wage pays.

“We believe that a job should keep you out of poverty, not in poverty,” Zeller said.

But business groups opposed the bill. Those groups included the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business, Americans for Prosperity and Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association.

They argued that raising the minimum wage hurts low-skilled, entry-level employees and consumers because the additional costs will cause businesses to cut back on hiring or increase their prices for goods and services.

They also said the minimum wage should be abolished altogether.

“If one consenting adult agrees to work for another for $5 an hour, should the state step in and invalidate the agreement?” asked Derrick Sontag, state director of AFP-Kansas.

“The free market should determine wages,” said Kent Eckles of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.

And Ron Hein, a lobbyist for the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said the vast majority of food and beverage employees already pay in excess of the federal minimum wage. Hein said his association has yet to find a business paying the state minimum wage.

But Zeller said an increased minimum wage helps businesses because workers have more money to spend and employers save money through reduced employee turnover.

She said the biggest group of people earning the state minimum wage are in the category of care workers for children, the elderly and infirm, in addition to workers on small farms whose employers gross under $500,000 annually and do not produce for interstate commerce.

State Sen. Roger Reitz, R-Manhattan, said that although he supports measures to raise the state minimum wage, he wasn’t confident about this bill’s chances. He said his fellow Republicans, who control the Legislature, haven’t been interested in increasing the minimum wage.