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Michigan Republicans decide that people can live on $9.25 an hour for the next decade

To prevent voters from approving popular ballot initiatives raising the minimum wage and paid leave, Michigan Republicans passed them as law. Now that the election is over, they’re taking it back.

Michigan Republicans decide that people can live on $9.25 an hour for the next decade
[Photo: bryndin/iStock]

In the lead-up to the midterm elections in November, grassroots organizers in Michigan campaigned to get a higher minimum wage on the ballot. Activists for a campaign called One Fair Wage demanded that the state’s minimum wage increase from $9.25 an hour to $12 by 2022. A companion initiative drafted by MI Time to Care called for the state to mandate 72 hours of paid sick leave annually for all workers, no exception, plus an hour of extra sick time for every 30 hours worked.

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Sensing that both initiatives, which gathered more than the required number of signatures to appear on the ballot, would pass, Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature headed off the vote on the ballot and approved the two measures as law in September. In Michigan law, the legislature is granted the power to intercept initiatives headed for the ballot and make them state law, ostensibly to save the money and resources that would go into continuing to campaign for measures that are likely to pass anyway.

But Michigan’s legislature used this this legal shortcut not in response to the popular will of its constituents, but to use its last gasp of power to gut the laws before the new Democratic leadership (the state’s first in over eight years) takes control in January. The Republican-controlled legislature set the laws to come into effect in March 2019, giving them enough time to tamper with them before leaving office.

This week, the Michigan House approved an amendment to the law that would move the timeline for the $12 minimum wage phase-in back to 2030; the Senate already voted in favor last week. Adjusted for inflation over the next decade, this essentially could mean a pay decrease for some workers in the state. Amendments to the paid sick-leave law would roll the number of mandatory days back to four, and exempt businesses with fewer than 50 workers, which employ around 1 million of Michigan’s roughly 4.2 million workers. The amendments will go to Governor Rick Snyder for approval next week.

None of this exactly comes as a surprise. When the Michigan legislature decided to head off the ballot vote for these two proposals, Senate Arlan Meekhof said that they would alter them to make them “more acceptable to the business community”–as in, not requiring them to consider the human needs of their workers. (We’ve reached out to Michigan House and Senate leadership, and will update the story if we receive comment.) The current minimum wage in the state, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, falls below the $10.87 per hour that a single adult needs, and incredibly below the $23.12 a single adult with a child would need. The more rapid phase-in of the $12 minimum wage would certainly help close some gaps for hourly workers, and the more robust paid sick-leave policies would ensure that they wouldn’t have to sacrifice their health to do so.

In recent years, other Republican-controlled states like Missouri have worked to stymie minimum wage hikes. This year, Missouri and Arkansas circumvented their conservative legislatures and secured minimum wage raises via ballot initiative. Without the same loophole as the Michigan legislature has to intercept the laws, these initiatives will take effect.

While Michigan Democrats are, for the time being, unable to do anything to stop the approval of the amendments that will weaken wages and paid sick leave, there’s a chance they may not be implemented. A provision in the law that allows the Michigan legislature to intercept a ballot initiative says that the legislature cannot amend the intercepted ballot initiative in the same session–which is exactly what this legislature is trying to do. The same leadership behind the original ballot initiative effort may mount a lawsuit against the legislature, and the state’s Supreme Court will likely review the constitutionality of the amendments. Regardless of the outcome, the situation in Michigan demonstrates the extent to which conservative lawmakers will go to keep money from flowing to people in need, despite the popular demand for fairer wages and leave policies from voters across the political spectrum.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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