Democrats file bill to raise minimum wage

Economists say "soft skills" will be critical for workforce survival in a coming age of automation

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
Dominique Weaver

RALEIGH — Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have filed companion bills that raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next four years, and $10 for tipped employees. Raising the minimum wage was a campaign promise of Gov. Roy Cooper and a key part of Democrats’ agendas nationwide.”We want people not just to survive, but to thrive. This legislation gives them the opportunity to do just that,” said Senate Democratic Whip Terry Van Duyn, one of the six co-sponsors of the Economic Security Act of 2017.N.C.’s current minimum wage is the same as the federal rate, $7.25 per hour, so the increase would more than double the minimum wage. While only 5 percent of the N.C. workforce earns the minimum wage, mostly teens and those just entering the workforce, the current median N.C. wage is $15.91 per hour. About 40 percent of the state’s workforce earns less than the median.Jon Sanders, director of Regulatory Policy for the John Locke Foundation, said a $15 minimum wage would mean economic “disaster” in the short term and service automation in the long term.”What has historically happened in cases of high increases, low skill individuals find it harder to find employment because employers no longer see their value at the minimum wage level,” said Sanders. “They start thinking about automation.”There’s also a downstream effect. The biggest indicator of being able to get a job is having had one … entering the workforce becomes even harder,” he added in an interview.The four-year-old “Fight for $15” movement has helped win big minimum wage hikes in California and New York, ranging from $9 to $12 per hour increasing over the next several years. In November the national “Day of Disruption” protest brought protesters to Durham demanding the minimum wage increase. The protest ended in 54 people being arrested, including the Rev. William Barber II, president of the N.C. NAACP.According to the Harvard Business Review, the nation’s workforce needs to prepare for an age of automation, regardless of minimum wages. In the fall, fast food giants McDonald’s and Wendy’s unveiled kiosks that would allow customers to order without an employee at the counter. Anheuser-Busch, working with Uber, recently delivered 2,000 cases of Budweiser in a self-driving truck.”We estimate that robotization, digitization, digital self-services, distributed digital advice and sales, and robo-advisors could result in a 60-70 percent reduction in the workforces of service providers, from financial services to telecom,” said HBR in a report published last week.The report said that as the workforce “hollows-out” the remaining employees will be determined by more by soft skills like the leadership, the ability to manage time and deliver quality customer and employer service.”Machines don’t call in sick, you don’t have interpersonal drama,” said Sanders. “But you also don’t have machines who can smile and have positive interaction with customers coming into your store, which means that, if given the choice, we would rather employ people.”Co-sponsors of the Economic Security Act said their measure goes beyond minimum wage.”This legislation contains many policies meant to level the playing field and provide economic security for working North Carolina families,” Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), one of the bill’s primary sponsors in the House, said Thursday. Eleven House Democrats have signed on to co-sponsor the bill.The bill writes into statute that employers with more than five employees must pay female and male employees with the same jobs the same wages if the quantity and quality of work is also the same. It also sets labor regulations on employers regarding wage notifications, youth employment, overtime and other employment law. Violations and civil penalties are also outlined, along with the process for employees to sue their employer. It also reinstates childcare tax credits.The Economic Security Act of 2017 was referred to the Rules and Operations of the Senate committee.