Big Island Advocates Ask Legislators to Support Living Wage
Originally published in Big Island Now, March 13, 2019
Hawai‘i Island advocates for a living wage did the rounds at the Legislature on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, talking to lawmakers and their staff. They were encouraged by what they heard and with the hearing on the issue coming up, their grassroots effort organized by members of the RaiseUpHawaii coalition was especially important.
The Senate Labor Committee will hear HB 1191 HD1 on Thursday, March 14, at 2:45 p.m. in conference room 224 of the Hawai‘i State Capitol.
From childcare to college, Hawaiʻi Island advocates Jennifer Kagiwada and George Donev told lawmakers that a living wage will transform the community.
They were pleased to find several lawmakers very supportive of a real living wage. They had flown to Honolulu to join other advocates who engaged legislators and their staff in discussions on the subject.
The bill raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, but it allows employers to pay a lower wage (only $12.50 by 2024) if they provide health insurance to those workers. A wage of $12.50 an hour in 2024 is a raise of less than 50 cents per year. “That’s just too little,” said the advocates.
They ended the day feeling optimistic that many lawmakers said that if the leadership brought to the floor a bill proposing a $17 living wage, they would vote for it.
“The challenge is making sure that such a bill makes it to the floor,” said Kagiwada.
She pointed to teachers and nonprofit workers who provide much needed social services, yet themselves struggle to make ends meet. “A parent who can afford child care, a teacher who can focus on the children in the classroom instead of worrying about rushing to a second job—that’s what a living wage will help deliver,” she said. “A living wage is good for our keiki. Don’t we all want to do right by our children?”
Donev, who graduated from high school in Waimea, and who is now studying math and computer science at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, thinks a living wage will help address the challenge of increasing college student retention rates.
“UH Hilo is a commuter school,” he said. “I see my fellow students struggling to keep up with school while taking on one or two minimum wage jobs to survive. It’s just not sustainable.”
The drop-out rate at UH Hilo is high and less than 40% graduate in six years. He told legislators that raising the minimum wage to a survival level or living wage will yield real economic benefits.
“It will allow students to focus on their studies, graduate on time, and contribute to economic growth. Every extra semester they stay in school increases the cost of getting a degree. So, if they are already struggling with rent and food, it makes it difficult to stay enrolled. A living wage can reverse that trend,” he said.
Current legislative proposals to raise the wage over the course of four to five years are stuck at between $12.50 to $15 an hour. This flies in the face of research from the state’s own Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT), the advocates said, which has determined that $17 an hour is what a single person with no children needs right now just to survive.
Advocates are asking legislators to enact a living wage that keeps up with the high cost of living in what is effectively the most expensive state in the nation.
The crises that Hawaiʻi Island has faced in recent months with volcanic eruptions and flooding have made the need for a living wage even more urgent to help people get back on their feet. Kagiwada and Donev are hopeful that legislators are mindful of what the community needs for long term recovery and will pass a living wage this session.