Legislature passes wage hike, paid sick leave but it's not that simple

Kathleen Gray
Detroit Free Press
The state Legislature voted Wednesday to pass two ballot proposals that would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour and require employers to provide paid sick leave for employees. But things aren't as they seem.

State lawmakers, led by Republicans, voted Wednesday to pass two ballot proposals that would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour and require employers to provide paid sick leave for employees.

But the 24-13 vote in the Senate and 78-28 tally in the House of Representatives were not as simple as they seemed.

The laws won’t go into effect until March 2019 and it was the intention of the Republicans in the Legislature to approve the proposals to keep them off the Nov. 6 ballot, and then amend the laws after the election. 

“We’re looking at a whole suite of things that we may think are more friendly to Michigan,” said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive. “We’re looking at all the things that would continue Michigan on the economic growth path and some of these things are prohibitive.”

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So that means the possibility of removing tipped employees from the minimum wage increase, which under the ballot proposal would be phased in through 2024. Some restaurant workers opposed the ballot proposal because they want to continue to get tips while getting paid less than the minimum wage.

Another proposal, Meekhof said, would be to get rid of the paid sick leave requirement.

“We should have something like family medical leave act,” he said. “The employer and employee should work it out. The government shouldn’t be involved in that.”

That’s the attitude that had Democrats calling the vote on the ballot proposals everything from a “bait and switch,” to “undo and screw.”

“I never thought I’d see the other side of the aisle take up a living wage increase or paid sick leave,” said state Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing. “But a vote for these initiatives is not a vote for workers. It will only allow my Republican colleagues to make any changes they please when no one is looking.”

Ron Bieber, president of the Michigan chapter of the AFL-CIO, questioned the true motives of Republicans who voted for the measures.

“Lansing Republicans have repeatedly refused to address the issues of minimum wage and paid sick time," Bieber said. "Now these same Republicans are publicly conspiring to stick a knife in the heart of these proposals with an unconstitutional ‘adopt and amend’ strategy.” 

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, who has repeatedly introduced bills requiring paid sick leave, said it pained him to vote against a measure that he has pushed.

“If I thought they were going to actually raise people’s wages and give people paid sick leave, I’d be the strongest champion ever,” Ananich said. “But when it’s a scam on the voters and workers all across the state, I have a problem with that.”

While no Democrats in the Senate supported the measures, nearly two dozen voted for the ballot proposals in the House, pledging to work to make sure the measures aren’t radically altered after the election.

“We must do this for the right reasons, for the 400,000 Michiganders who signed their name to this proposal,” said state Rep. Leslie Love, D-Detroit. “To gut it after the fact is nothing less than voter suppression.”

The groups sponsoring the two issues had gathered enough signatures and the measures had been approved for the upcoming ballot, but the Legislature’s action makes the ballot unnecessary. The laws also will go into effect without the need for a signature from Gov. Rick Snyder.

The Legislature can now amend them with only a simple majority. If the proposals, instead, had gone to the ballot and been approved, it would have taken a three-quarters  majority to amend the laws.

The business community in Michigan is opposed to both proposals, saying that they would end up costing taxpayers money because businesses would be forced to lay off employees or to raise prices on the goods and services to cover the associated costs.

“As with all other laws pertaining to business, it is important to keep policy making within the hands of the policy makers," said Mike Johnston with the Michigan Manufacturers Association. “If there are provisions in these proposals that would harm or reverse Michigan’s economic comeback, we need to be able to address them at the legislative level.”

One suggestion has been to pass the minimum wage hike, but remove the provisions that would also raise wages for tipped workers, like bartenders and waitresses, to $12 an hour by 2024. Tipped employees are paid $3.52 per hour and if their tips don’t get them at or beyond the current minimum wage of $9.25, the employers are supposed to make up the difference. Restaurant workers who are opposed say patrons will be less likely to tip if they know their servers are making $12.

About 200 tipped workers rallied at the Capitol.

“The (Michigan Licensed Beverage Association) fought hard along with so many other groups to ensure the safety of the hospitality industry and the jobs of those who work in it,” said MLBA Executive Director Scott Ellis. “We were in favor of the adoption so that the law can be amended to save the tip credit for servers and bartenders.”

Danielle Atkinson, founder of Michigan Time to Care, which spearheaded the paid sick leave proposal, was grateful for the approval of the proposal, but said that her group will now spend its time making sure it’s not gutted after the election.

“We began this campaign with the goal of giving nearly 2 million Michiganders the right to earned paid sick time,” she said in a statement. “Our job now is to make sure the Legislature does not cave to lobbyists and special interests and use the lame duck session to weaken the law.”

Pete Vargas, campaign manager for the One Fair Wage Ballot Committee, said the group was not surprised by the legislative action, but intends to file suit to get the issue on the ballot.

“We’re confident in our legal strategy that what they did today is unconstitutional,” Vargas said. “They’ve been fighting us every step of the way, but our legal team will do whatever we can to get this on the ballot in November.”

Contact Kathleen Gray: kgray@freepress.com. On Twitter: @Michpoligal.