So Just What Is a Fair Minimum Wage for Nevadans?

Since America began pulling out of the Great Recession, a lot has been said and written about the struggling middle class, and how the recovery has only been for the wealthy.  Sixteen years ago, the ELCA adopted a Social Statement titled “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, A social statement on economic life.” In the very first paragraph, it says the current market-based economy meets people’s needs to an amazing degree and many are prospering as never before. At the same time, others continue to lack what they need for basic subsistence. The Statement goes on, “Our faith in God provides a vantage point for critiquing any and every system of this world, all of which fall short of what God intends. Human impoverishment, excessive accumulation and consumerism driven by greed, gross economic disparities, and the degradation of nature are incompatible with this reign of God.”

These strong words predate the current debate over whose politics and what economic policies are most beneficial, but the issues haven’t changed since 1991, and really since the days of the Prophets. LEAN always starts with the ELCA Social Statements when analyzing proposed legislation, and “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All” has come into play a lot in the current legislative session. A number of bills have been introduced that really do chip away at the status of working people.

Earlier in this year’s Nevada legislative session, State Senator Tick Segerblom created a stir when he proposed increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour (Senate Joint Resolution 8). At present, the minimum wage in Nevada is $7.25 per hour if health insurance is offered, $8.25 if no health insurance is offered and the employee must buy insurance elsewhere. A year’s full-time employment amounts to about 2,000 hours (40 hours x 52 weeks) and at $8.25 per hour, a year’s income would be $16,500.  It’s pretty difficult to live on that, even if you’re a single person with no dependents. The $15 per hour rate would make a year’s earnings $30,000, still not a very good living. Senator Joe Hardy introduced a somewhat competing measure, SJR 6. His bill doesn’t overtly reduce the minimum wage, but would have the effect of doing so for many workers. Right now, an employer is considered to offer health insurance if a plan is available through the employer at a cost to the worker of no more than 10% of his wage. So our minimum-wage worker would be able to buy insurance for $1,450 per year.  ($7.25 per hour with insurance x 2000 hours =$14,500.) Senator Hardy’s plan tweaks the formula to say that the employer is counted as offering health insurance (and therefore able to pay at a rate of $7.25, not $8.25) if the insurance costs no more than 10% of wages or 10% of the federal poverty level for a family of four, whichever is greater. That sounds pretty innocuous until you know that right now the federal poverty level for four is $24,250. This means that the employer can still be counted as offering health insurance if the plan costs $2,450 per year. A worker living on $14,500 per year may very well decline the employer plan if the cost goes from $121 per month to $204 per month. But the employer would still qualify as “offering health insurance” and could continue to pay $7.25.

This is just one example of a host of bills that require careful analysis to understand the impact. There isn’t room here to discuss others, but we hope to have more soon. Our Advocate, Rev. Mike Patterson, needs your prayers. He works hard to keep up with analysis of the bills, and then in committee hearings he has to speak, sometimes in opposition to powerful business interests. This is why “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All” is so important: It’s an anchor for LEAN’s positions, and a clear statement of how we think our beliefs should be applied in this material world. It’s worth reading. Find it at www.elca.org, or through Google.

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