For the first time in a decade Washington's minimum-wage workers won't be ringing in the new year with a pay raise.
The state's minimum wage will hold at $8.55 an hour, officials with the Department of Labor & Industries reported.
The wage is adjusted annually to reflect inflation and consequently is the latest casualty of the national recession. But word of the plateau hasn't raised immediate concerns for the area's lowest-paid workers. If anything, some officials believe it could be a boost for small businesses.
"Anybody that is trying to support a family on minimum wage is likely to, depending on family size, be on public assistance to supplement that," said Kathy Covey, Community Services director for social-service agency Blue Mountain Action Council. "When they do get (a wage) increase, it just drives down then what they would get supplementary."
With increased programs driven through stimulus dollars, increases in food stamp eligibility and an extension in the time limit on unemployment benefits, more resources are available to those in need, BMAC Chief Executive Officer Steven Moss said.
Moss and Covey said the stabilization of the minimum wage may enable small-business owners to expand their employment.
"From our perspective, trying to help people break into the work force, it's a positive in that hopefully there will be jobs available for them to start in, to gain some work skills and work habits," Moss said.
Businessman Kerry Tierney agreed. The owner of six Dairy Queen Grill & Chill restaurants, including Walla Walla's operation on Plaza Way, said some business owners have had to make painful cuts to offset the labor costs with the minimum-wage increases. Sometimes that includes raising prices. Sometimes that means cutting back staff.
"What happens is businesses are really forced to limit either growth or hiring people, so I think it doesn't always serve the purpose it was intended for," Tierney said.
He said the annual increases have cost him more than the step up for entry-level employees. He also has to bump up wages accordingly for his more experienced workers in leadership roles.
The leveling off of hourly wages may allow some businesses to now add jobs instead of cut positions, he said.
Washington state has the highest minimum wage in the country, trailed by Oregon, which pays $8.40 an hour. Oregon officials said that wage will also not increase in 2010.
Washington voters approved the inflation methodology in 1998 under Initiative 688. In addition to Oregon, eight other states adjust their minimum wage off inflation: Vermont, Ohio, Nevada, Montana, Missouri, Florida, Colorado and Arizona.
According to L&I, the Consumer Price Index decreased 1.9 percent during the 12-month period that ended in August, compared to a 5.9 percent increase during the same period in 2008. That increase led to a 48-cents-an-hour increase in the 2009 wage.
Regional labor economist Arum Kone said the indexing approach has eliminated the "saw-tooth pattern" created when minimum wages are increased and allowed to decline against inflation. That makes this year's minimum wage roughly the same as in 1968, he said.
Kone said food services, agriculture and retail trade accounted for about two-thirds of the total jobs in every quarter going back to 1990. In the second quarter of 2007, when the minimum wage was $7.93, accommodations and food services hosted 37 percent of the state's minimum wage jobs. Another 20 percent of those low-wage jobs were in agriculture, and 17 percent were in retail trade, Kone said.
During that period, 4.8 percent of Walla Walla County's full-time jobs were minimum wage. That number would have been higher if all employment were calculated, rather than full-time equivalents.
Minimum wage history
Effective date and minimum wage per hour:
Jan. 1, 2009: $8.55
Jan. 1, 2008: $8.07
Jan. 1, 2007: $7.93
Jan. 1, 2006: $7.63
Jan. 1, 2005: $7.35
Jan. 1, 2004: $7.16
Jan. 1, 2003: $7.01
Jan. 1, 2002: $6.90
Jan. 1, 2001: $6.72
Jan. 1, 2000: $6.50
Jan. 1, 1999: $5.70
Sept. 1, 1997: $5.15 (federal minimum-wage change)
Jan. 1, 1994: $4.90
Jan. 1, 1990: $4.25
Jan. 1, 1989: $3.85
Jan. 1, 1976: $2.30
Sept. 1, 1975: $2.00
Jan. 1, 1974: $1.80
Jan. 1, 1968: $1.60
Jan. 1, 1962: $1.25
June 30, 1961: $1.15
Information from the Washington state Department of Labor Industries.