March 6, 2013

Doing the Minimum

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Q: With lawmakers in several states voting to raise their minimum wage, is there also an effort in Oklahoma to increase the amount?

A: There are no bills pending in the Oklahoma Legislature that would increase the  minimum wage, although doing so would boost many workers’ checks: Oklahoma has the third highest percentage of workers in the nation — 7.2 percent — making at or below the federal hourly minimum wage, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Only Idaho (7.7 percent) and Texas (7.5 percent) have higher rates. Most of Oklahoma’s 7.2 percent of workers make below the minimum wage, meaning their employers get an exemption.

Oklahoma’s standard minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, the same as the federal minimum. The state is one of 31 where the minimum wage is officially at or below the federal level. A state can require employers to pay more than the federal minimum, but in states where there is no official minimum or the minimum is lower than the federal one, non-exempt employers still must pay at least the federal wage.

Oklahoma requires employers with 10 or more full-time workers at any one location or with annual gross sales of more than $100,000 to pay the minimum wage. All other employers must pay at least $2 an hour, such as restaurants paying that amount to wait staff who earn tips.

In his State of the Union speech in February, President Barack Obama called for Congress to raise the minimum wage to $9 per hour, as well as tie the rate to the cost of living.  The increase “could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank, rent or eviction, scraping by or finally getting ahead,” Obama said.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, however, told reporters afterward that raising the minimum wage would increase unemployment because fewer businesses could afford to hire employees. This week, Democrats in Congress proposed hiking the minimum wage to $10.10 in three steps over two-plus years, with automatic annual increases pegged to the inflation rate.

The last raise in the federal minimum wage came in 2009, under legislation signed by President George W. Bush that gradually increased the wage.

Since Obama’s speech, Democrats in several state legislatures have pushed for an increase. Recently, the New Mexico Senate approved a measure to raise the state minimum wage to $8.50 per hour and New York’s State Assembly passed a bill to raise the wage to $9 per hour. Massachusetts’ Legislature is considering bills that would raise the level to between $11 and $12 per hour; Hawaii’s state Senate passed a bill that would raise the wage to $9.25 per hour and peg the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index starting in 2016.

Here’s a look at each state’s and the District of Columbia’s minimum wage and percentage of workers making at or below the federal minimum wage:

* Some states include a second lower level for tipped workers, smaller employers or employers that offer benefits. Workers in states with no minimum wage or a minimum wage set below the federal level are paid at the federal minimum wage level.

** Includes all workers aged 16 and over.