Delaware State News | by Matt Bittle
Legislation passed by the House on party lines Thursday would eliminate a separate lower minimum wage for youth workers and those in training.
House Bill 88 would remove from state law language enabling employees in their first 90 days on the job and individuals younger than 18 to be paid up to 50 cents less than the state minimum wage, which is currently $9.25. It would take effect three months after passage.
A separate youth and training wage was established in 2018 as part of a compromise between Democrats and Republicans on the final day of the 149th General Assembly. After the House narrowly approved a bill to raise the minimum wage by $1 at 3:50 a.m. on July 1, House Republicans refused to vote for the capital bond bill.
Following two hours of closed-door negotiations, legislators reached an agreement on the wage. In return for GOP support for the critical bond bill, Democrats pledged to back the creation of a lower youth and training wage.
After a brief debate Thursday that saw Rep. John Kowalko, a fiery Newark Democrat, ruled out of order by the House speaker for attempting to talk over others and rebut a Republican comment for the second time, representatives sent the measure to the Senate by a 26-15 tally.
Supporters believe allowing certain employees to be paid less is unfair to them, noting some low-wage earners help support their families.
“The youth and training wage discriminates against people because of their age or when they were hired. It creates a second class of workers, with some potentially earning less simply because they’re a minor, or because they’re new to the job, regardless of prior experience,” Rep. Kim Williams, a Democrat from Newport, said in a statement.
“That’s less money for gas, bus fare, groceries or bills. This was a bad policy when it was enacted, and we’ve taken an important step toward unraveling it.”
Opponents countered now is the wrong time to heap an additional burden on businesses, particularly restaurants, which have been left reeling over the past 14 months.
“I think we’ll see the outcome of this six to eight to 10 to 12 months down the road,” said Minority Leader Danny Short, a Seaford Republican, predicting many will have to close.
Rep. Mike Ramone, a Republican representing the Newark area, questioned why legislators are trying to use the minimum wage both as a starting point and a livable salary. Many teenagers making minimum wage are simply working to get experience on the job, he said, urging lawmakers to consider indexing the minimum wage to a reliable and consistent metric, such as inflation, and focus on increasing pay across the board.
It’s not clear how many Delawareans currently make less than $9.25 an hour through the youth and training wage.
Also Thursday, the Senate approved a bill that would prevent individuals convicted of crimes against children from serving on school boards.
Senate Substitute 2 for Senate Bill 78 would require school board candidates undergo the same background check currently required of all Delaware educators and allow the Department of Elections to disqualify candidates based on the outcome. The bill also would mandate the suspension of a sitting school board member charged with a disqualifying crime and their removal from office if convicted.
Under current Delaware, school boards can censure members and even call for their resignation, but only the governor has the power to remove them from office.
The legislation would cover violent felonies, a felony against a child or a misdemeanor offense involving bribery, improper influence or abuse of office.
“School boards exist to help our district and charter schools improve the lives of children and should be reflective of their communities,” Sen. Laura Sturgeon, a Woodbrook Democrat and the main sponsor, said in a statement.
“The idea that someone with a record of harming children could run for a school board seat or continue to hold that office even after being charged with such a heinous crime is unconscionable. While it is upsetting that we now live in a world where we have to even consider these possibilities, we cannot go another day knowing there is currently little that can be done once these cases come up. I want to thank my colleagues in the Senate for taking action today to close these loopholes once and for all.”
Sen. Darius Brown, a Wilmington Democrat, was the only vote against the bill, which now goes to the House.
The Senate also passed legislation promoting the use of virtual meetings beyond the current state of emergency. It received 19 votes for, with Sens. Brown and Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican, dissenting.
Senate Bill 94 would allow all public bodies in the state, including municipalities, school boards and commissions, to add a virtual component to their meetings. The measure lays out the rules public bodies must follow to ensure their virtual meetings comply with the Delaware Freedom of Information Act.
It would require a physical anchor location where at least one presiding member must be present and documents introduced during meetings are accessible to the public. Seven days’ notice of how the public can participate virtually would also be mandated.
An entity could still opt to hold its meetings entirely in-person.
“We’ve all seen how virtual meetings can vastly expand public access and public participation over the last 14 months. The reality is people are far more likely to attend public meetings if they can participate from the safety and comfort of their own homes,” Sen. Stephanie Hansen, a Middletown Democrat and the bill’s chief sponsor, said in a statement.
“Here in the Senate, we’ve also seen how public bodies can advance the public good while meeting virtually. This legislation will help ensure that the expanded civic engagement and public accessibility we’ve seen during the pandemic can continue long after the current health crisis has ended.”
The bill, which expands on legislation from the summer that let all public bodies meet and conduct business virtually during the pandemic, now goes to the other chamber for consideration.