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Star-Advertiser Column: Essential workers today, with starvation wages tomorrow?

Essential Workers Today, Starvation Wages Tomorrow?

It is one of the shameful ironies of our time that Hawaii continues to fail to address the injustice that many workers deemed essential do not receive a wage that meets their essential needs.

Hawaii’s lowest-in-the-nation real minimum wage has left hundreds of thousands of workers living paycheck-to-paycheck and struggling to make ends meet. The state’s DBEDT study identifies that full-time workers need at least $17 per hour to afford their basic needs—Hawaii’s minimum wage is a starvation wage of only $10.10 per hour.

Democrats failed to address this issue in 2018 and 2019, leaving the minimum wage stagnant. This was after Governor Ige ran on a $15 minimum wage platform in 2018 with the majority of both the House and Senate agreeing with him.

Low-Wage Workers Essential for our Survival

We are dependent on the labor of thousands of low wage workers who are now risking their health and safety, ensuring that our community can still function. In Kona, dozens of McDonald’s workers and their family members tested positive for Covid-19 last month.

How have we expressed our gratitude? With starvation wages that do not allow them to feed their families or thrive. We should instead guarantee all workers a path towards a living wage.

Before the 2020 legislative session started, Democratic leaders agreed to increase the wage to $13 an hour by 2024 via House Bill 2541. Although there are eight states already on their way to $15 per hour, and advocates are asking for a $17 living wage, Hawaii’s Democratic leaders thought local workers should be paid less than what is needed to survive.

Time to Support All Workers

With the legislature now resumed, it’s absolutely necessary that our leaders at least live up to their $13 by 2024 promise. It still falls far short of what would constitute a living wage, but it would be necessary progress towards that goal.

The bill passed through the House already, so only needs to pass the Senate before it goes to Governor Ige’s desk to be signed. Just 13 Senators need to agree to pass HB2541 for workers to get the raises they were promised.

Opponents will say that raising the minimum wage isn’t prudent and doing so will put more of a burden on businesses that are already struggling. This fails to take into account that raising the wage from 2014 to 2018 was good for businesses and workers, and doing it again will be good for business now.

Estimates show that if businesses raise prices by just 2%, that would completely pay for the wage hike that would start in 2021. Increasing the price of a $7.00 poke bowl to just $7.14 would completely pay for the raise and leave the business just as profitable.

We Are Stronger Together

This plan is supported by the people too. According to a National Restaurant Industry survey, consumers overwhelmingly support paying more to give workers a fair and livable wage. Increased wages would also allow workers to spend more within our economy and help support additional local jobs.

The economic fall out of this pandemic is no excuse to renege on raising the wage, but even more of a reason to hold true to a commitment that Hawaii workers need. The small 2% price adjustment needed to pay for the wage increase pales in comparison to the other changes we’ve all been making.

As we allow businesses to open again it’s only right that we treat all of our workers with dignity and have a plan for them to make ends meet. Continuing to exploit our neighbors with starvation wages is not what our future economy should look like. The so-called “new normal” should move us closer to fairer wages for all, especially for those who have sustained us through this dark time.

Our Senators have the opportunity to set a higher standard for what it means to be a worker in Hawaii. We cannot turn our back on them now.


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