Raising 2015 | Minimum wage hike, other new laws take effect

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Minimum-wage workers in 20 states  — about 3.1 million people — saw a boost in their paychecks with the arrival of the new year.

Meanwhile, the “bah humbug” mood toward workers at Wisconsin’s Capitol carried over from 2014 to 2015, with Republicans focused on enacting an anti-labor “right to work” bill. If introduced, the measure seems likely to reach the governor’s desk, but it’s uncertain whether Scott Walker would sign the bill. 

As for the minimum-wage bill introduced in early January by state Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers: It seems likely to go nowhere, despite voters in nine Wisconsin counties and four cities passing advisory referenda in support of a hike in November 2014.

“Studies have shown those making minimum wage tend to spend nearly all of what they earn, so this increase will provide a boost not just to families directly affected but to our small businesses and communities, as well,” said Wirch.

In addition to Wisconsin voters supporting an increase in the minimum wage, voters approved hikes in Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, where the base wage on Jan. 1 went up by $1.25 per hour. Legislative action raised minimum wages in 2015 in Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia and automatic increases in wages kicked in for workers in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon and Washington.

Estimates indicate the wage increases will pump more than $800 million into the GDP.

Later this year, minimum wages for workers will go up in Alaska, the District of Columbia, Delaware and Minnesota.

Additionally, the minimum wage for workers under federal contract went up to $10.10 on Jan. 1.

Just over a week into the new year, the AFL-CIO assembled labor leaders in Washington, D.C., for the National Summit on Raising Wages, part of a campaign to boost the wages of more Americans in more states, with a focus in early presidential primary states.

“For more than 30 years, too many politicians in Washington have made deliberate choices that favored those with money and power,” U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in the keynote address at the summit. “And the consequence is that instead of an economy that works well for everyone, America now has an economy that works well for about 10 percent of the people.”

The Democrat said to make new choices “we need to talk about what we believe: We believe that no one should work full time and still live in poverty — and that means raising the minimum wage. We believe workers have a right to come together, to bargain together and to rebuild America’s middle class. We believe in enforcing labor laws, so that workers get overtime pay and pensions that are fully funded. We believe in equal pay for equal work. We believe that after a lifetime of work, people are entitled to retire with dignity, and that means protecting Social Security, Medicare and pensions.”

In Wisconsin, Wirch’s proposal would take the minimum wage from $7.25 — where it has been since 2009 — to $10.10 per hour, and tie future increases to inflation.

“With so many families struggling just to get by and the cost of necessities and utilities continuing to rise, we need to take this small step to help them stay afloat,” Wirch said.

Hector Reubens, who earns a minimum wage at a gas station in Taunton, Massachusetts, said the state increase from $8 to $9 effective Jan. 1 already has made a difference. “Some people will say what’s a dollar? Big deal. But it is a big deal, when every week you feel like you are falling behind or just getting by,” he said.

Belinda Young, a discount store clerk in Lincoln, Nebraska, said she’s earning 75 cents more per hour. “That will add up in time,” she said. “It won’t be wasted.”

Notable new laws

Other laws now in effect deal with alcohol sales and consumption, animal welfare and hunting rights, crime and punishment, environmental protection and conservation, health and welfare, driving and transportation, taxes and gun sales and possession.

New to the statutes:

In Utah, cities and towns can no longer ban specific dog breeds within their limits, which should reduce the number of pit bulls abandoned to rescues.

In California, a measure now restricts the confinement of egg-laying hens, breeding cows and veal calves.

Another new law in California makes drivers’ licenses available to people without legal immigration papers.

In Tennessee, ex-felons can receive a certificate of employability, intended to protect businesses from negligent hiring lawsuits.

In Michigan, it’s now illegal to buy cough and cold medicine to make methamphetamine and the state police must add meth offenders to a national database.

Louisiana made it possible for those 16 and 17 to register to vote when they get a driver’s license, though the teens aren’t eligible to vote until they turn 18.

In Nevada, teens who habitually cut class could see their license suspended or have to wait to get one.

Property owners in North Carolina must disclose if underground oil or gas rights have been sold when selling a home.

New Yorkers must recycle their electronics instead of trashing them.

In Mississippi, totally disabled veterans or their surviving spouses — if they do not remarry — need not pay taxes on their home.