County should boost minimum wage

A flurry of recent news reports of cities and counties enacting minimum wage increases have brought new attention to this issue across the country.

Los Angeles became the most recent to act, when the city council voted on May 19 to increase the wage from its current $9 per hour to $15 by 2020. In structuring the new scale to go into effect gradually, LA followed the pattern of such cities as San Francisco, Seattle, Richmond, Calif., and others that have acted in 2015.

It raises a more-than-valid question for the Garden Island: Why can’t Kauai County do the same?

After all, our cost of living is comparable to San Francisco and Los Angeles. More than that, the 2014 elections installed a solid majority of reasonable County Council members who want to return our focus to core economic and other bread-and-butter priorities for Kauai.

There is no doubt that state and federal laws do not stand in the way of Kauai County — or any of Hawaii’s other three county governments — from going its own way on the minimum wage. A spokesperson for the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations confirmed that no laws “prohibit a county from adopting a higher minimum wage” than the existing state or federal standards.

Kauai may have had a bad experience by enacting a poorly conceived county pesticide ordinance whose provisions were preempted by state law and, as a result, void. There is no question of preemption on local minimum wage legislation. There isn’t any.

In fact, although legislation introduced this year to hike Hawaii’s statewide minimum wage failed, the Legislature did act as recently as 2014, with a measure that gradually increases the wage from $7.75 to $10.10 per hour on Jan. 18, 2016.

But no one can seriously suggest that $10.10 per hour is enough to permit a Kauai working family to have a lifestyle much above the poverty line. With its smaller economic base, Kauai presents particular problems for things like utility rates.

So the Legislature’s pass on further action this year leaves it all up to the counties. The same question: Why can’t Kauai County do the same?

Pragmatic politicians realize full well that there would be considerable pushback from employers against a Kauai minimum wage increase to $15. Such a raise, employer groups would doubtless argue, would price Kauai visitor attractions out of reach for tourists and cede economic ground to Honolulu, Maui and Hawaii Island destinations.

This argument doesn’t hold water. First, many visitors to Kauai come specifically because of our unique combination of beauty and charm. We do, after all, have the best island. Second, if the wage increase was countywide, no employer could try to retain competitive advantage by undercutting the new scale. The wage playing field would be level.

Other local jurisdictions taking this new minimum wage direction have wisely chosen a phased approach. San Francisco’s $15 minimum does not take effect until July 1, 2018. Seattle’s minimum won’t be finally reached for five to seven years. Richmond, Calif., reached $9.60 per hour in January of this year and takes until 2018 to get to $13, and pegs future increases to the Consumer Price Index.

Kauai County could choose an approach similar to Richmond’s, recognizing that today’s uncertain economic situation makes seeing into the future impossible, so a reassessment in two or three years makes more sense.

An increase in the minimum wage for Kauai could also be tailored to respect the marked differences in the economic situations of large and small businesses. Just as we have no shortage of large resort employers, we also have a large core of smaller businesses ranging from Bubba’s Burgers to Tropical Tantrum clothing.

Keep in mind that government, health care and education combined dwarf tourism as employers.

Mel Rapozo, JoAnn Yukimura, KipuKai Kualii, Mason Chock, Arryl Kaneshiro and Ross Kagawa have coalesced into a solid and pragmatic core of the County Council. It’s difficult to imagine they would not do the right thing, especially if they hear about it enough from constituents.

A few timorous voices have called on the county to hold back and let Honolulu take the initiative. But there’s no logic to that in a field in which any Hawaii county is well enough known across the country to speak loudly by starting to correct severe wage inequities that have hamstrung so many regular people and families island-wide. What Kauai lacks in population size it makes up for in national visibility.

Waiting to do this is nonsense. Why not Kauai County? Why not now?

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Allan Parachini is a resident of Kilauea.

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