Legislation would raise minimum wage in Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s minimum wage has remained stagnant for about a decade, but now a state lawmaker hopes to raise it by $3.25 an hour.

Supporters say the move would bolster the state’s working class, but opponents are concerned that it will hurt businesses and ultimately result in fewer jobs for lower-skilled workers.

State Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, filed legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.50 an hour starting in 2020.

Young said he files a similar measure every year, but the lawmaker is optimistic that it will gain some traction this year based on interest the idea has received.

Young said minimum wage hike measures are typically avoided by the Legislature, but with hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans reliant on food stamps and struggling to afford basic necessities, now is the time to discuss it.

“It’s almost like we don’t even talk about it because it’s too ridiculous to even consider,” he said. “(But) once you get inside, you see that we’re struggling because the majority of people are working the minimum wage (jobs).”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that while 901,000 Oklahoma workers received hourly wages in 2017, about 28,000 were paid minimum wage or less.

Although Oklahoma’s minimum wage mirrors the federal rate, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that nearly 30 other states require starting pay be more than $7.25.

“I believe the working poor of Oklahoma deserve more than $7.25 an hour,” said Jimmy Curry, president of the labor union Oklahoma AFL-CIO. “We fully support raising the minimum wage.”

While Curry said $10.50 is a “good starting place,” no one could afford to live alone in a one-bedroom apartment on that wage.

Curry said most Oklahomans receiving minimum wage hold two to three different jobs. Raising the pay would help the economy and benefit the working poor, he said.

“Minimum wage workers — for every extra dollar or 50 cents an hour — they will be spending it,” he said. “They will not be saving it. They will be putting it back directly into the economy.”

Still, Curry said the proposal is likely to face resistance from restaurants and fast food associations because it will impact their bottom lines.

Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative-leaning think tank, said he’s concerned about the proposal.

He said research has shown that raising minimum wages is not the best way to help the most vulnerable find work, but instead hurts low-skilled and aging workers the most, he said.

“The reason for that is because typically companies that have employees that are being paid near the minimum wage, they’re faced with lower margins on a per entity basis,” he said.

Oklahomans could see restaurants close, and other businesses could opt to replace human workers with less costly automated technology, he said.

In addition, Small said the state’s economy is recovering, but oil and gas prices are now declining. He said wages are rising and employers are voluntarily increasing pay.

“The last thing we want to do is make it more difficult for people to find work by government arbitrarily setting wages that have no correlation to what’s going on in the market,” he said.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.