OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahomans likely won’t see a minimum wage hike this year after the state Senate effectively killed three key pieces of legislation intended to boosted worker pay for the first time in a decade.
State Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, said he was disappointed that his measure increasing wages from $7.25 to $10.50 failed to even get a committee hearing in the Republican-controlled state Senate.
The effort marked the fourth time in as many years that Young has filed legislation seeking to boost minimum wage. Despite a lot of public support, the measure ultimately faced resistance from Senate leadership, which led to its downfall, he said.
“I think it’s a real mistake on their part, a failure to see the need and necessity of trying to make us as they say, 'a Top 10 city,'” Young said. “One of those things is you help those folk that are most vulnerable, and I think they miss out on that every time.”
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.
State Sen. James Leewright, R-Bristow, who chairs the Senate’s Business, Commerce and Tourism committee, said he didn’t hear any of the minimum wage measures because he doesn’t believe it’s possible to change the perception of a worker’s value.
“What it actually does is do away with the job altogether, and so for (that) I thought it was bad for workers,” Leewright said. “Minimum wage is meant to be an entry-level position. I would hate to do away with entry-level positions for people trying to get into the workforce.”
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.
State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, said she modeled one of her proposals after an Arkansas law that boosts hourly pay from $8.25 an hour to $11 over three years. Her measure would have gradually increased Oklahoma pay up to $10 an hour over three years.
Her second measure would have repealed Oklahoma’s existing pre-emption so that municipalities could decide if they wanted to set rates above what the state requires.
Neither measure received a hearing in Leewright’s committee.
Hicks said she’s concerned that Oklahoma’s blue-collar workers are leaving in favor of higher-paying minimum wage jobs in other states. It’s important that lawmakers value blue-collar jobs in addition to higher-earning ones, she said.
“We know that we already have a workforce shortage as it is, so my plea to (Leewright) is that this is only going to exacerbate the issue in that businesses are considering relocating their operations here,” she said. “We’re not able to fill some of their needs sometimes, so I think it’s just prudent for us to just kind of consider why that is.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.