HOOSER: Hawaii frontline workers deserve a raise

Pandemic or no pandemic, minimum-wage workers in numerous states, cities and counties across the United States will be receiving a raise this year.

According to recent news reports in The Hill: “Twenty states and dozens of localities increased their minimum wage on January 1, 2021, giving a financial boost to many frontline workers during the pandemic.”

But here in Hawai‘i our frontline workers will get nothing, and remain stuck at $10.10 per hour in a state where it costs $17 simply to survive.

In Seattle and San Francisco, the minimum wage exceeds $16 per hour. Residents in Florida just voted to increase their minimum wage to $15 per hour. There is a long list of states and municipalities that have passed laws increasing their minimum wage to $15 per hour AND requiring automatic annual adjustments tied to the cost of living.

Despite having a legislature dominated by Democrats and a Democratic Party that has made increasing the minimum wage a top priority, Hawai‘i’s legislative leadership has refused to give minimum-wage workers any raise at all. And unlike California, New York and 12 other states, they have also refused to require annual increases tied to the cost of living.

The upcoming 2021 legislative session will obviously be more challenging than in past years. It is highly likely that legislative leadership will attempt to fast-track the budget, avoid substantive policy issues such as the minimum-wage increase, and exit the session just as soon as they possibly can.

This path of delay and avoidance is unacceptable. The issues are too important.

$17 per hour by 2026, with annual cost-of-living increases, should be our target.

In 2019, Gov. Ige publicly supported a $15 minimum wage. The Hawai‘i Senate actually passed such a bill that was subsequently gutted by the House and killed in conference committee. Standing in the way of passage seems always to be the House.

Thus, if a minimum wage increase is to occur in 2021, it must have the support of Speaker of the House, Scott Saiki.

Saiki and his leadership team tightly control everything in the Hawai‘i state House of Representatives — every committee assignment, every bill that gets scheduled for a hearing, and whether or not a bill ever goes to a floor vote. He even controls who gets what offices and parking spaces.

If Saiki wants to pass a bill increasing Hawai‘i’s minimum wage, it will happen. If he opposes an increase, then no increase will be passed and frontline workers will get nothing.

While he will publicly demur and say that he only expresses the will of the “majority,” that is shibai. The “House majority” has repeatedly indicated their strong support for at least a $15 minimum wage. Clearly someone, either the speaker or the “majority,” is being less than forthright when expressing their intentions.

Hawai‘i has the highest cost of living in the entire United States. The pandemic has exposed more than ever before the injustice put upon our most essential workers who are paid the equivalent of starvation wages. Our lawmakers need to respect and support frontline workers and pass a strong minimum-wage increase during the upcoming session.

The reality of any wage increase passed by the Legislature in 2021 is that it would not likely go into effect until 2022, and be phased in slowly over a four- or five-year time period. To those who claim economic calamity will occur if the minimum wage is increased, the historical evidence and research indicates this is absolutely not the case.

If you believe as I do, that anyone who works 40 hours a week deserves a wage sufficient to provide a dry, safe place to live and three basic meals a day, please call and email Saiki, and ask him to support and help pass such a measure into law. Please also call your own district representative and senator and encourage their support as well. Be polite and professional, but firm. Hawai‘i’s minimum-wage workers deserve a raise, and we are asking our legislators to pass the necessary legislation to make this happen.

It’s important. Please call and email this week if you can. The legislative session begins on Jan. 20, and legislators need to know now that increasing Hawai‘i’s minimum wage must be a priority. All contact information can be found at capitol.hawaii.gov.


Gary Hooser is the former vice-chair of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i and served eight years in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kaua‘i County Council, and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action and is executive director of the Pono Hawai‘i Initiative.

  1. Kawika January 6, 2021 5:23 am Reply

    Great article that is disturbing in two ways. It shows how our democratic (type of government not political party) is broken when a minority can control what happens in the legislative process.
    Secondly how our news media is failing us, I don’t recall any articles telling us a particular bill was tabeled by a committee.
    Our national electoral college system needs to be revisited bit fails in the idea of one person one vote by weighing the number of votes per state.

  2. Doug January 6, 2021 10:39 am Reply

    “Hawai‘i has the highest cost of living in the entire United States”
    And it will go even higher when prices rise to cover a raise in the minimum wage. And what about the small businesses that are hurting due to the pandemic? Can they afford the higher per hour wage and it’s associated costs (increase in wage taxes to the feds, increase in unemployment insurance, increase in worker’s comp premiums, the list goes on and on). When they try to pass the increased costs onto the consumer those that can afford it pay more, those that can’t eat out less etc costing our small businesses who are still reeling from the pandemic. Of course Gary, after getting rich in public service, can afford any price increases, so who cares? Wasn’t bad enough that Young Brothers rates went up 46%, now we have to hit our businesses with this cost. Just another nail in the coffin. Hooser’s timing is brilliant, as always!

  3. Jerry January 7, 2021 12:08 am Reply

    Gary you’re a textbook politician. Congrats. Its hard to accomplish, you’re clearly no an economist. Or a small business owner…if you were you could see that increasing the minimum wage will cause a cut in hours of those employees to limit payroll, in a lot of cases hours will be cut back so avoid having to pay health insurance. Also based on our current situation of the fed printing exorbitant amounts of us currency, were devaluing the US dollar even more. Inflation is most certainly a thing and it’s very concerning. Get ready for uptick in costs, taxes and job losses.

  4. Frank Kelly January 7, 2021 11:13 am Reply

    The only thing missing from Mr Hoosier’s article is basic economics. There is NO FREE LUNCH. In a FREE market an individual is able to earn the value of their economic contribution. If an individual wants more, improve the value of your economic contribution.
    In these trying times, would be nice if government unions and elected officials agreed to defer pay increases.

  5. Dt January 7, 2021 7:47 pm Reply

    Reminds me of the initiative of “rise to work”. Pretty soon government will pay all wages. Then they can easily raise the minimum wage. We can do a universal wage. All jobs pay the same amount. That makes the most sense. And everyone works for the government. Except those who don’t want to work, they get to stay home and collect a wage. All property shall be property of the government, under order. Property will be divided evenly. Sounds like a utopian place!

  6. Wil Welsh January 7, 2021 8:30 pm Reply

    Right on, Gary. It should be possible for someone to work 40 to 60 hours a week at $15 and afford to live in Hawaii. But of course, this is a minimum, a starting place, and will still require at least 2 jobs per four-member family to struggle to live in Hawaii. This is the least we owe those who are in the countless service jobs we all depend on.

    1. Colin McCleod January 8, 2021 8:53 am Reply

      “This is the least we owe…”
      Really, Will, WE? “We” owe them nothing–businesses pay wages. If someone wishes to make more money then they need to prepare themselves beforehand or make themselves more productive. That’s the way things work.
      Under Hooser’s and your logic why not pay “them” $30, $40 or $50 per hour?
      Enough with the economic illiteracy already.
      Colin McCleod

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