Training wage could be useful, if clarified

In our opinion


Training new employees can often be difficult for business owners.

The learning curve can be steep and the return on investment minimal, at least at first. Employers sometimes are reluctant to become too heavily invested in employees who either don’t work out, or end up leaving early for another position.

A bill under consideration in the Washington Legislature might help employers when it comes to paying new employees. Senate Bill 5275, and the identical House version 1150, would create a training wage for new employees of 75 percent of the state or federal minimum wage, whichever is greater.

With Washington’s minimum wage the highest in the nation at $9.19 per hour, the bill if enacted would mean a wage of $6.89 per hour for qualifying businesses. According to the bill’s language those are businesses with 50 or fewer employees, limited to no more than 10 percent of that businesses work force and last no more than the first 680 hours of employment. Businesses could use the special certificate created by the legislation only once per employee.

One concern we had is the legislation could leave the door open to employers to terminate qualifying employees just short of 680 hours for no reason, and then hire a new employee at the training wage rate. Language in the bill prevents that however, requiring employers who terminate employees short of the 680 hours to notify the Labor and Industries director explaining the termination, and preventing them from hiring a replacement employee under the training wage certification for one year from the date of discharge.

SB 5275 sponsor Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry (R-Moses Lake) and other proponents hope the legislation motivates small-business owners to hire more teenagers and thereby give them valuable work experience. Erin Shannon of the Washington Policy Center testified in committee that their research shows the state’s high minimum wage results in high unemployment levels for those entering the workforce, and that employers often have to “take a gamble” on teenagers with no work skills or history.

Helping teenagers gain work experience is a noble idea, if that were the sole focus of this bill. The trouble is the state already has provisions for paying workers under the age of 16 at 85 percent of minimum wage. State law requires those over 16 be paid the same minimum wage rate as adults.

If the bill was really about getting more teens into the work force why not simply change the 85 percent of minimum wage rate to include all workers ranging from 13-19 years old? Opponents of the legislation claim the bill is really taking aim at lowering the state’s minimum wage for everyone, and the lack of an age limit gives validity to their argument, although since voters approved annual adjustments to the minimum wage via a 1998 initiative, that might be difficult to do.

Then again, voters have five times approved a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature for tax increases, and we know where that’s gotten us.

There’s also no indication of how the training wage legislation might impact seasonal jobs or paid internships, positions that can often run less than the 680 hours.

Most employers, even the small “mom and pop” businesses – which is really the target of SB 5275 – want people to work for them and want to pay them as best as possible. Training new employees can be an expensive endeavor, one that sometimes doesn’t pay off should the employee leave or not work out.

Providing a training wage might help out in these regards and possibly put more people into the work force. Whether that’s meant just for teens, or everyone, needs to be clarified.


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