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With Some Changes, Measure To Exempt Youth Workers From Minimum Wage Clears Arizona Senate Committee

Legislation to allow employers to pay some young people less than the voter-mandated minimum wage cleared a crucial hurdle Thursday.

Originally the bill would have allowed employers to pay full-time students less than state minimum wage. The Senate Commerce Committee voted to approve the measure after Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, agreed to remove any mention of education.

Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, who was the deciding vote on the Committee, says the student verbiage was unacceptable because it would create a situation where someone could earn more by quitting school.

"I do not want to de-incentivize kids to try to better their life,'' he said.

Now HB 2523applies to part-time employees younger than 22 years old. If passed, employers could pay them as low as $7.25, which is the federal standard. The state minimum wage is $11 an hour.

Possible Legal Challenge

A legal memo prepared by Ken Behringer, general counsel of the nonpartisan Legislative Council, declared that HB 2523 runs afoul of the state minimum wage proposal approved by voters in 2016.

He wrote that the plain language of that measure applies to all employees, regardless of age. And that, Behringer says, means it is subject to a constitutional provision which forbids lawmakers from tinkering with approved ballot measures.

Grantham says that, technically speaking, his proposal does not amend what voters approved in 2016.

He said it creates a new category of part-time "youth workers'' who are simply not subject to the state minimum wage, so lawmakers are free to make the change without running afoul of the Voter Protection Act.

"This argument flies in the face of the clear language of the statute,'' Behringer wrote.

The fight is over Proposition 206 which took the state minimum wage from $8.05 an hour at the time to the current $11. It is set to go to $12 next year, with future increases tied to inflation.

Despite opposition from the business community, it was approved by voters by a margin of 58-42 percent, a larger margin than Sen. John McCain gained in his reelection against a challenge by Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick.

Youth Employment

Grantham said the problem is that an $11 minimum means that many employers can no longer afford to hire young people for basic jobs.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, agreed.

"I'm voting for this bill because I want younger people to have more opportunities,'' he said.

But Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, said that's telling only part of the story.

He says considering what would happen if a company has a 23-year-old full-time worker, perhaps a new college graduate, who is earning the $11 minimum.

"If a business can hire two young people to work 20 hours a week to make up for that 40 hours, I could see a situation where that 23-year-old would lose their job,'' Bowie said.

A Key Amendment

Although Pace voted for the bill in committee, he said he wants an amendment that would say the exception to the state-mandated minimum wage would apply only to "those who are dependent, without children, who are not raising their own family, who are not heads of household,'' allowing them to get an entry-level job.

He says this will be added when the bill reaches the Senate floor and will protect those who are supporting themselves or their families.

Grantham said he promised Pace that he would support language limiting the applicability of that $7.25 minimum wage "to someone who is truly that single, young individual looking for that first part-time job.''

The measure passed the House of a party-line vote in February.

It now heads to the Senate floor.

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Claire Caulfield was a reporter and Morning Edition producer at KJZZ from 2015 to 2019.