Valdez: The main event behind Arizona's minimum wage sideshow

January 4, 2017
AZ Central
Linda Valdez

One of the biggest questions about Arizona’s new minimum wage law won’t be answered in court.

It can’t be. It has to be answered by the people of Arizona.

It is: Why does our society devalue jobs that involve taking care of the elderly, the young, the disabled and the mentally ill?

Business is about money, not morality

The court fight launched by business groups against Arizona’s new, voter mandated increase in the minimum wage was predictable. Business is about money, not morality.

But the arguments against the initiative show a widespread acceptance of paying poverty wages to those who care for the most vulnerable among us.

That should make us all uncomfortable – especially those who claim a moral high ground.

In November, voters approved Proposition 206 to boost the minimum wage incrementally to $12 an hour by 2020, and to require paid sick time. The first increase to $10 an hour went into effect on Jan. 1.

The Arizona Supreme Court declined the pleas of business groups, Gov. Doug Ducey and GOP legislative leaders to halt that first raise for the working poor.

The court will look at the argument to nix the entire initiative at a later date.

The case against Prop. 206 reveals an embarrassing institutional disregard for both the vulnerable and those who care for them.

After the initiative passed, contractors who provide services to the state for abused kids, the developmentally disabled, the elderly and others said they could go out of business if they follow the voter mandate to raise wages.

How much will this cost the state?

In other words, those who care for your most vulnerable neighbors make poverty wages.

Few people would tell their co­workers they want the cheapest possible care for their aged mother or disabled child. Yet there was no sustained public outcry.

These poverty wages are an accepted fact and a state badge of dishonor. They also became the basis for the fight against a modest wage hike.

Opponents say raising the state's reimbursement rates to service providers who need to increase salaries would create a cost to Arizona, and therefore violate the Arizona Constitution’s requirement for ballot measures that require state spending to have a funding source.

Prop. 206 specifically excludes the state from the mandate to raise wages, so the fight will be about collateral impact on Arizona’s budget.

It’s no surprise that business is opposed to higher wages. Or that the party of business, the GOP, remains philosophically opposed to our government of the people actually doing something on behalf of the people.

The court fight is high stakes because it could kill the hope for a little social justice in this state.

Who do you want taking care of Mom?

But the court battle is also a sideshow distraction from the larger question.

The main event is this very public acknowledgement – and acceptance – of how little we pay those who care for the most vulnerable in our society.

Ironically, voters may have approved raising the minimum wage in the belief that it would largely help part­time teen­age or other entry­level workers. After all, the business community has long argued that that nearly all minimum­wage workers are in these limited groups.

But when the measure passed, the evidence became irrefutable that poverty wages are the rule for those who help elderly parents, disabled friends and children in need.

Poverty wages are the rule for those who are expected to deliver skilled care to people who are in extremely difficult circumstances – and to do it in a way that respects the dignity and humanity of the people they serve, while protecting the health and safety of those same people.

That’s not a low­skilled job.

So why don’t we value those who do this work?

I don’t have an answer. But I do have a couple more questions:

Who benefits from perpetuating the idea that it’s OK to have a class of people called the “working poor”?

As our society ages and more people require assistance, what are we prepared to do about the frightening reality that caring for fragile people is a ticket to poverty?

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