Last November, more than two-thirds of Arkansans voted to gradually increase the minimum wage to $11 per hour by the year 2021. And at the beginning of this January, wages rose from $8.50 an hour to $9.25. However, just two months after this change was approved, Sen. Bob Ballinger (R) and Rep. Frances Cavenaugh (R) proposed a bill to amend the Minimum Wage Act and exempt certain minimum wage workers – specifically those under the age of 18, those at public and private schools, and those who work at a business with fewer than 50 employees – from receiving a raise in pay, and potentially subject them to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
In late January of this year, the bill was moved to the “deferred list” in the Senate Public Health committee, leading to speculation that Ballinger might not have had the votes. However, two months later, the Republican Senator brought back the bill with a few amendments. The legislation as amended would still exempt workers younger than eighteen but would also add two new categories of employees who could be paid less than the state’s current minimum wage: those convicted of a felony and people with developmental disabilities. The amended bill still impacts employers with fewer than twenty-five employees, including non-profits, but removed the exemption for schools.
Senator Ballinger claims that the minimum wage increase is already hurting some businesses and non-profits in the rural areas he represents. He is quoted on Arkansas Online to have said: “I totally get the people voted. I really don’t think the people intended to put their mom-and-pop businesses out of business. They didn’t want to shut down ministries and nonprofits, they didn’t want to make it where if a business wants to take a chance on a 16-year-old kid, they have to pay him $11 an hour. That wasn’t the intent.”
But many people, including Henry Edwards ’20, see this Ballinger’s proposal as a complete rebuke of democracy: “Arkansas is special in that we can have petitions, and citizens can have whatever they want, basically, on the ballot, if they get enough signatures. This is how the Minimum Wage laws started in 2006, and then the one in 2014, and then this one. And then for the legislature to go in and totally blow it [the minimum wage increase] up is against the people’s will.”
Further, others have spoken out against this proposal, including, of course, David Couch, the attorney who led the petition drive for the minimum-wage measure. He finds Ballinger’s legislation to be “horrible” and does not think it will be passed by the two-thirds vote required by the Arkansas Constitution. “Surely there are nine or ten Republicans out there who would vote against this,” as this exemption would also apply to many hospitals and nursing homes that operate as nonprofits. At this point, it is unclear what percentage of Arkansas’ workforce this legislation will cover, though Couch estimated that it would affect more than half of all employers.
In the House of Representatives, Robin Lundstrum (R) – because of apprehension similar to Ballinger’s – followed suit and filed two bills with similar minimum wage exemptions. One would exempt businesses with fewer than twenty-five employees and non-profits with a budget of less than one million dollars from paying the state minimum wage. An exemption through this legislation would also be created for private non-profit developmental service providers whose operations are primarily funded by state or federal reimbursement, or both, on a fee-for-service schedule. The other proposes minimum wage exemptions for high school and college students from ages sixteen to nineteen, or those under twenty-one years old.
While at a luncheon on March 13, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson was asked about the two House bills. In an Arkansas Online article, he is quoted to have said: “I am very sympathetic to those needs and that’s really one of the reasons that I did not support the initiative to raise that minimum wage because of what this means to teenage employment, what does this mean to small business and nonprofits. But having said the concern about it, this is an act of the will of the people of Arkansas, and I do not believe it should be changed by a legislative act.”
The Republican Party of Arkansas released a statement shortly after Hutchinson’s message, saying the minimum wage initiated act – and other citizen-approved measures – should be amended “only when circumstances so demand [but] until then, we should follow the direction of the people and not attempt to alter it.”
Lundstrum plans to continue moving forward with these legislations despite opposition from the governor and her party.
But here comes the real question: will Hendrix College students be affected by any of these proposals?
According to the Administrative Regulations within the Arkansas Department of Labor, “the Act does not apply to students performing services for any school, college, or university in which they are enrolled and are regularly attended class (Ark. Code Ann. § 11-4-203(3)(B)). In other words, luckily (or perhaps, unluckily), Hendrix student workers will not be impacted by any changes made in the Minimum Wage Act. In the past, though – pursuant to an email from the Vice President of Human Resources – Hendrix has been “generous” by increasing student worker pay rates with the previous minimum wage increases and continues to pay students above the legally required minimum. However, “after careful consideration of the cost and impact of continuing to increase student worker pay rate,” they’ve decided not to be as ‘generous’ the second time around.
But, nevertheless, students who don’t qualify for federal work study or simply don’t want to work at the college, but clearly still need a source of income, will most likely experience these consequences. “If you’re a teenager living in Conway… you could choose to work at [a local company like] Blue Sail because you support their mission… or because you like their coffee,” says Max Parker ’21, “but you could also go to Chick-fil-a, or Starbucks, and be guaranteed $9.25 an hour. It may not be the same kind of work… but it would definitely hurt small businesses because it forces them [students] to make a decision that may not be what they want.”
Update: The legislation proposed by Lundstrum was rejected by a 42-34 vote in the House of Representatives on Monday, April 1.