Amidst a pandemic, searching for happy medium in minimum wage debate

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Greg Markley

By Greg Markley

An oft-misunderstood aspect of any federal minimum wage debate is how vulnerable small businesses are. Bereft of the resources of corporations, “Mom and Pop” stores have little wiggle room when combating new laws, government fiat or fickle consumer tastes. This is likely why a local restaurant owner was clearly upset when I darkened his store’s entrance late last year.

He greeted me and asked where I had been for the past few years. I said trips to Columbus or Montgomery for doctors or work; I ate there when visiting. Also, I tried new restaurants in Lee County. Often, patrons return to an eatery they left, after finding the new establishment is overrated. A boon for a small business is its reputation, and a bane is increased costs, such as a higher minimum wage.

Recently a ruling was made declaring that any efforts to boost the federal minimum wage cannot be properly part of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. Lifting the minimum wage to $15 was preferred to be part of the COVID bill, because that legislation is highly likely to be enacted. A Senate official determined that with a reconciliation bill, which could pass with a simple majority of 51 votes, not 60 as under a filibuster, that minimum wage changes could not legally be attached.

Who was this person, with the power to sever legislation from being part of a big-ticket, wide-ranging bill? Was it Sen. Chuck Schumer, the most powerful solon? No way. Or was it Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the prestigious Senate Budget Committee? Nada. Then who was this mysterious person who has so much say over legislation on such things as minimum wage and Sanders’ $15-per-hour dream?

She is Elizabeth MacDonough. Who the heck is she? She’s not a Fox and Friends talking head, nor is she regularly quoted in The New York Times. But since 2012, she has been the Senate parliamentarian, the ultimate arbiter on Senate rules, protocols and precedents. MacDonough is the first woman to serve in this critical role, which is non-partisan. The position was created in the 1930s.

Named after the long-serving Senate Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, sponsor of the rule in the mid-1980s, the Byrd Rule says a bill passed under reconciliation can’t include a measure with a meaningful fiscal impact that is “merely incidental” to the rest of the bill. MacDonough stated that the minimum wage hike is definitely incidental to the COVID-19 relief package.

“While serving its 100 members on a day-to-day basis, I still represent the Senate,” MacDonough said in a 2018 commencement speech at Vermont Law School. “No matter who’s in my office asking for assistance, I represent the Senate with its traditions of unfettered debate, protection of minority rights and equal power among the states,” MacDonough told the graduating class. She added: “That Senate is my charge.”

In 2021, the federal minimum wage is $7.25; most states and many cities have higher minimum wages, which means that almost 90% of U.S. minimum wage workers earn more than the federally required minimum of $7.25. Alabama is one of only 21 states that maintain the federal minimum of $7.25.

Twenty-nine states have a higher minimum, with the highest per hour minimum pay being $14.00 in California, followed by Washington at $13.69. From 2018 to 2019, seven states increased their minimum wage levels through automatic adjustments and increases. Another 16 states and the District of Columbia changes came by referendum or legislative action, noted the Economic Policy Institute.

 “The person earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 isn’t going out to eat at restaurants,” Nick Hanauer, a billionaire enterpreneuer, argues. “They’re not taking piano lessons. They’re not going to the gym or the yoga studio. They’re not sending mom flowers on Mother’s day. What good is this person in the economy? If you raise it to $15 an hour, they’re doing all of those things.”

However, small businessmen have good reason to oppose $15-per-hour pay. Why? Because some employees would get an increase per hour of more than 100% but others might be laid off to compensate. This applies to the buffet owner nearby who snapped at me for straying from his lunch counter for a year or two. He doth depend on regulars too much.

 I still go to my old favorite restaurant, despite getting a harsh look if I have been gone too long. With a minimum wage hike, some employees will be happy; others, even long-timers, may be sent packing as a consequence of others’ raises. I hope a compromise of $10 or $10.50 per hour happens. Junior employees would get more money without hemorrhaging the small business by its expense.

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has master’s degrees in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for eight years. He can be reached at gm.markley@charter.net

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