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Weighing in on wages: Bemidji Chamber takes stance on state minimum wage debate

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BEMIDJI — The Bemidji Chamber of Commerce is in favor of raising Minnesota’s minimum wage — just not to the degree some in the Legislature would like.

In a statement Dec. 18, the chamber called the potential increase “long overdue” but with the caveat that the chamber is “cautious of substantial increase in the minimum wage under proposed legislation.”

Chamber President Lori Paris said while the chamber is in favor of the general idea of a wage increase, it’s wary of a bill passed in the Minnesota House of Representatives that would raise the wage to $9.50 an hour for large businesses and $8.50 an hour for small ones.

“The scale they propose needs to be reconsidered,” she said. “Not anything too drastic, because that will grossly affect pretty much every one of our small business owners here.”

During the upcoming session, the House bill will likely be reconciled with the Senate’s more conservative increase of $7.75 an hour.

Survey says. . .

Paris said the chamber will advocate its stance at the State Capitol, starting with its statement and sending legislators results of a survey of local business owners and operators it conducted this fall.

Paris named Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, as a legislator they will reach out to. Winkler spearheaded the House’s wage increase bill, which passed 68-62 in May. A week after the chamber’s survey began Oct. 17, Winkler and fellow DFL members of the Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs, held a public forum in Bemidji. Many of the attendees, local business owners and CEOs, spoke out against the potential wage hike.

“With the increase in the minimum wage… you are going to take a lot of the small mom-and-pop shops that operate on such tight margins that you would put a lot of them out of business,” Keg n’ Cork owner Mitch Rautio said at the time.

Opposition such as that to an increase is what makes the results of the chamber’s online survey surprising, since it targeted the same demographic of Bemidji businesses.

Of the respondents, 49 people, said they’d support an increase in the state minimum wage. Forty-seven respondents said they would oppose it. Another 37 people said they’d “maybe” support it.

Business owners also wrote passionate arguments for and against an increase in the survey’s comments sections.

“If we don’t pay people a wage they can support their families on we can’t expect them to get off public assistance of one type or another,” one supporter said. “Pay your people what they are worth, they are the faces of your business!”

Opponents felt the increase would cause layoffs as smaller businesses struggled to come up with the extra money to pay workers.

“The minimum wage does need to be increased, however, the timing is terrible. They should have been increasing it a few cents every year the past 10 years,” said one. “Coming out of the worst business climate in 50 years is not the best time to (increase) wages. Business owners do not have a pile of extra cash laying around to pay these higher wages. They will c(o)st staff and hours.”

Other respondents used harsher words.

“Minimum wage people are less like the majority of the working class and will only spend their slight increase in pay on addictions (smokes, beer) and places like Wal-Mart which need no help,” said one respondent.

The entire debate may be academic in Bemidji — according to at least a third of the business owners who filled out the survey. In response to the question “If there is passage to an increase in the minimum wage, how would your business adjust to a $2 dollar an hour increase? Select all that apply”, 35 percent of respondents picked “I pay above minimum wage and I don’t feel I would need to make any changes”; 37 percent said they would raise prices; 31 percent said they would reduce staff and 15 percent said the $2 increase would not impact their business. (To this question, respondents could choose as many options as they wanted).

According to a 2012 study conducted by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were approximately 60,000 people in Minnesota paid at or below the prevailing federal minimum wage.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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