Jean Ryals opened her shop, Everything Under The Sun, 11 years ago. As the business grew, she relocated and expanded, and it’s now a popular gift emporium for local shoppers.
Even during the lean days of the shop’s inception, Ryals always paid her employees more than minimum wage, even new hires.
“I think you pay people what they’re worth,” said Ryals. “If you don’t, they’ll always be looking for their next job.”
President Barack Obama and the U.S. Senate recently announced a push to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour, to $10.10. On the heels of the announcement, an initiative petition was introduced in Oklahoma City to raise the minimum wage to the suggested $10.10. If it gained 80,000 signatures, it would be put to a vote of the people.
This legislative session, a bill passed prohibiting municipalities from setting a minimum was or vacation and sick-day requirements. Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill into law earlier this week.
In the past, Fallin has opposed raising the federal minimum wage, as she believes it would “destroy jobs.” The governor’s decision to sign the bill has drawn ire from the Oklahoma Democratic Party and an Oklahoma City union.
Ryals doesn’t necessarily disagree with the assertion, saying a leap from $7.25 to $10.10 – a 39 percent increase – could force some small business owners to make tough decisions.
“To start employees at $10.10 per hour [across the board in every business], well, [some businesses] would have to have fewer employees,” said Ryals. “Not only that, but those employees you keep would have to work harder. Raising it so much at once is difficult. You’d create a whole new skew of unemployed people.”
On the other hand, Ryals realizes people working for minimum wage who live in poverty-stricken communities could use the boost in their paychecks.
“It’s a double-edged sword, really,” said Ryals. “In places with high poverty rates, raising the minimum wage might bring people out of poverty and make them less dependent on the state for benefits.”
Ryals also doesn’t think it’s necessarily a good idea for cities to set minimum wages.
“I realize there has to be a standard [such as the federal minimum wage], but I don’t think it’s a good idea [for a city] to mandate a minimum wage,” said Ryals.
While she wrestles with the political end of the debate, Ryals realizes the choices she’s made for her own business have worked for her.
“I like to think by paying my employees above minimum wage, they feel appreciated, valued and assets to the business,” said Ryals. “As a result, I think they work harder. I also don’t give annual raises. I base raises on merit. I don’t give 10 or 15 cent raises, either. I give dollars, because I want them to feel the difference. In my 11 years, I have never had an employee ask for a raise. I always beat them to the punch.”
Sen. Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa, the Senate co-author of the bill by Rep. Randy Grau, R-Edmond, told the Associated Press the measure “levels the playing field for all municipalities in Oklahoma.” Other supporters say it prevents creating a “hodgepodge” of minimum wages in different regions of the state.
Federally recognized American Indian tribes, like the Cherokee Nation, are sovereign governments, and as such, they do not have to prescribe to the recent state law.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker recently signed an executive order raising the tribe’s minimum wage to $9.50 over the next two years. The current minimum wage for CN employees is $9 per hour, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
According to tribal officials, nearly 400 employees will see a pay increase resulting in more than $1,000 per year. Employees with more than one year of service earning minimum wage will jump to $9.50 per hour on Oct. 1, the first day of the tribe’s new fiscal year. Workers with less than one year of service will see a staggered increase over the fiscal year.
“The Cherokee Nation’s mission is to be the employer of choice in Northeastern Oklahoma,” said Baker in a press release. “We recognize that while the cost of goods and services has risen, wages have not, so we’re doing something about that. This wage increase will help more Oklahomans put food on the table, and rest easier about how to make ends meet. It will also allow our employees more discretionary spending, which boosts the local economy.”
The wage increase is applicable to all government employees, including health care, education, housing and other operations.
Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director David Moore said his board of directors had yet to discuss the issue; therefore, he had no comment.
Change Oklahoma released a copy of a memo from Mike Seney, senior vice president of policy analysis and strategic planning at the State Chamber of Oklahoma to all state senators, dated March 5, urging them to support the bill restricting a city from raising its minimum wage.
The memo asserts that many businesses would have to decrease the workforce if the minimum wage is increased by a municipality.
“While most businesses in Oklahoma pay more than the minimum wage, there are thousands of small businesses that provide entry-level jobs to teenagers and other unskilled workers who simply can’t afford to pay more,” the memo states. “Having to drop a worker to make sure the other four get a higher minimum wage is not sound economics.”
Shannon Grimes, local business owner and chairman of the Cherokee County Republican Party, said laws such as this are harmful to the economy.
“Laws like this are destructive to the economy and particularly to the unskilled workers, no matter what government passes them, federal state or local,” said Grimes. “Passing such laws are price-fixing that skews the labor market prices and insure that fewer unskilled workers will be able to find work.”
Grimes said the government has no business mixing with private industry.
“Government should not be running mine or anyone else’s business, which is what these laws do,” said Grimes. “Minimum wage, vacation and sick day laws tell business owners and their employees that they cannot decide themselves what is acceptable. Lowering or removing the minimum wage would lead to greater employment rates. As more people are employed, more production takes place. As more production takes place, the economy and economic opportunities expand.”
In its Saturday Faceook forum, the Daily Press asked its “friends” their opinion of effort to ban cities from raising the minimum wage, and the responses were diverse.
Susan Jefferson said she thinks the state shouldn’t dictate to city governments.
“I don’t think the state should tell cities what to do as far as wages go, any more than the state would like the federal government telling them what to do,” said Jefferson. “If the people of a town or city decide to raise their wages, let them be. They have spoken.”
Richard Hoenes also opposed the legislation.
“I say let some cities raise it; others won’t,” said Hoenes. “Let’s see who does better.”
Katina Pacheco believes the minimum wage has an effect on the price of goods and services, and she is in favor of the law.
“If the minimum wage goes up, the prices of everything goes up as well,” said Pacheco. “So that just defeats the purpose of raising wages.”
Peggy Wilson agrees with Ryals’ way of doing business, saying business owners should be the ones to decide to exceed the minimum wage.
“Why not just pay your employees what they are worth?” asked Wilson. “Some [people] will be worth more to the business than others.”
Local business owner Al Soto opposes raising the minimum wage.
“I contend that raising the minimum wage is bad for people,” said Soto. “It is bad on so many levels. It hurts jobs, it hurts small business, it hurts our rights and increases the power of the political elite in Washington.”
To read the results of a Daily Press poll on the minimum wage, visit tahlequahTDP.com.