‘Training wage’ eyed for new workers

A proposal would open the door to paying some workers below minimum wage.

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OLYMPIA — Washington state has the highest state minimum wage in the nation, but a new bill being considered by lawmakers would allow some employers to pay a lower “training wage” to new employees for a certain period of time.

The measure heard before the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee on Wednesday would establish a special training certificate for employers with fewer than 50 employees. The certificate would allow them to pay new employees 75 percent of the minimum wage during a training period to last no longer than 680 hours. Washington state’s minimum wage increased by 15 cents this month to $9.19 per hour.

Employers would only be able to use the certificate once per employee, and training wages could not be used on more than 10 percent of the employer’s work force.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, a Republican from Moses Lake who is chairwoman of the committee. A companion bill in the House had a public hearing on Tuesday.

Opponents of the measure said that it would hurt low-wage employees.

“Workers are still falling behind,” said Stefan Moritz, of Unite Here Local 8, a union representing hotel workers, restaurant workers.

Moritz said he believed the bill was “an opening bid to an attack on the minimum wage.”

“Full-time workers in our industry are working hard every day to put food on the table and they barely stay above the poverty line,” Moritz told lawmakers.

Holmquist Newbry said she’s not trying to circumvent the minimum wage law, but said that employers need some flexibility in order to hire younger employees that they otherwise might not consider.

“It’s another additional tool to our employers to put the time and effort into hiring,” she said after the hearing.

Currently, exceptions to the minimum wage law already exist with employers being able to pay less than the minimum wage to certain groups, like student workers at schools that they attend, and individuals impaired by age or physical or mental deficiency or injury. State law also allows a training wage for 85 percent of minimum wage for 14 and 15 year olds.

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