A petition to increase the minimum wage was submitted this week to the state Division of Elections office with the hopes that this time, a solution to the state's chronically low minimum wage would be found, not only now, but into the future.
Like most things in this state, things started well -- or at least equitably -- when it came to Alaska's minimum wage. For most of our state's history, we have had one of the highest minimum wages in the nation. But in recent years, that status has fallen significantly, despite the fact that life in Alaska costs significantly more than in the rest of the nation. Federal workers in Alaska receive a hefty cost of living increase because the federal government recognizes it takes more than beautiful mountains to encourage people to want to live in the state.
Now, the state's minimum wage -- $7.75 per hour -- is 17th in the nation -- only four states have a minimum wage higher than the federal level but still lower than ours. That's an income of $16,120 per year for someone working a full-time job being paid minimum wage in Alaska. The initiative, which collected 43,500 signatures, would raise the minimum wage to $8.75 on Jan. 1, 2015 and $9.75 the year after that. But the real promise in the initiative comes after that -- when it would mandate that the rate would be adjusted for inflation or would be $1 more than the federal minimum wage, whichever was greater.
According to news reports, a similar initiative went before state voters over a decade ago, but was trumped when state lawmakers passed a similar bill. Unfortunately, the next year, lawmakers gutted the inflation adjustment portion of the bill. Legislative action in 2009 put back in a provision for Alaska's minimum to be 50 cents above the federal minimum. And here we are today, with a woefully inadequate minimum wage that does little to help those in entry-level positions of the work world -- those struggling to acquire job skills, resume credentials, and a life for themselves beyond welfare.
The cost of living fluctuates widely throughout the state. Most employers in rural Alaska, where costs are highest, don't pay minimum wage, or if they do, it is with the assurance that overtime wages are built into the equation during the many feast-or-famine jobs found in the summer in Alaska.
But in Alaska, what impacts one portion of the state also impacts other regions. More people depending on welfare programs and public assistance has an impact on all of us, and the minimum wage is a big part of that equation.
In the area that I live, it costs at least $700 to rent a single bedroom apartment, another $100 to heat it, $100 to have phone service, and then there's transportation costs. Let's estimate most Alaskans don't have access to public transportation, so they need a car, and insurance will cost at least $100 a month. Putting gas in that car probably costs $150 a month. So now we are at $1,150 a month and we haven't eaten yet, or bought toilet paper or socks. If you are working a minimum wage job in Alaska, you have less than $200 left to do all that. It's simply not enough to survive. And it's absolutely not enough to put any away for savings, take a college class or try to build a career.
Luckily, most employers recognize this and pay their workers more than that, but some do not -- like many national fast food chains, who take advantage of the state's lack of action by putting the profits back into their coffers far away from the state of Alaska.
This initiative is important to all of us as our state's economy becomes more diverse and national chains move in where mom-and-pop businesses were owned by Alaskans who took care of their employees. We as a state must mandate that those working the lowest wage-drawing jobs get paid enough to cover their basic necessities.
If legislators move again to pre-empt the initiative by passing their own legislation, recognize that this would mute Alaskans' opportunity to voice their position on the issue. If an overwhelming majority of voters support the effort to increase the minimum wage now and into the future, it would be much harder for lawmakers, current and future, to support any legislation that waters down that mandate. And apparently, lawmakers need to hear loud and clear that the minimum wage is too low, and should never be this low again.
This article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.
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