Robert Ehlert: Employers should raise minimum wage

April 1, 2014 

Robert Ehlert


Today I am making a plea to raise the minimum wage. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party, the National Low Income Housing Coalition and dozens of other organizations agree.

Except there is one difference: I want the people who could and should raise the minimum wage to do it, not the government.

I want the businesses and employers who can swing it to raise the minimum wage. It could happen all over Idaho tomorrow. It has happened at huge national retailers and restaurants - voluntarily. I believe it is one of the reasons smart Idaho businesses and national operations such as Gap and Costco are so successful.

"Instead of minimizing wages, we know it's a lot more profitable in the long term to minimize employee turnover and maximize employee productivity, commitment and loyalty," said Craig Jelinek, Costco's president and CEO, on

According to an op-ed written by Obama and widely published this weekend, the Senate is ready to take up the minimum wage this week, and it may pass. But it already has failed in the House of Representatives, and it is going nowhere on the federal level. About 21 states have minimum wages more than $7.25 an hour. Idaho is not one of them.

It is not likely to happen here through national legislation because of gridlock and today's political and economic climate.

No matter how hard Obama and Biden pitch it, and no matter how many different proposals are put out there to raise it to $8.50, $9.50, $10.10, it is not going to happen if it is a government solution. The president and other proponents would do better to stick to championing companies who have done it on their own.

Americans aren't buying the sell and the selective spin being used to promote "giving America a raise" just because. Why? Not long after the president made his State of the Union speech, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that raising the minimum to $10.10 per hour would lead to a loss of about a half million jobs by late 2016. To the good, the CBO said raising the minimum might lift some 900,000 out of poverty - if they still had a job.

Recently, the National Low Income Housing Coalition made a point with a map that color-coded the 50 states by virtue of how many hours of work it takes to afford rent. The map shows it would take someone in Idaho 73 hours of work to make rent. But when you scrutinize the map, you learn that it takes 72 hours in Oregon, where there is a higher minimum wage. Back where the president lives in Washington, it takes 137 hours of work to make rent, and minimum wage there is $8.25. That is some interesting math: It takes twice as long making an extra $1 per hour, to make rent.

Hiking wages is not going to happen if the government pushes it; but nor is it a given that all employers are going to start thinking like Costco. It is variable. There are different markets, circumstances.

But we consumers can start asking the employers we do business with in Idaho: What about that Costco theory? Wouldn't better paid workers reduce turnover, do better jobs and create a ripple that pays dividends throughout a community? I don't know if companies are paying all they can. But you and I can ask. You and I can choose to do business with a company that pays attention to what we ask.

Enlightened and benevolent employers can start something. I'll finish it by choosing them. And I bet you will, too.

Robert Ehlert is the Stateman's editorial page editor. He can be reached at

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