ARLINGTON, S.D. — Many teenagers are settling into school after a summer of taking home at least the state minimum wage of $8.55 an hour, but businesses hiring after Election Day could be able to pay minors less under a now-paused exemption.
Activists and the state Democratic Party are working to defeat the South Dakota law in November, when voters will be able to determine whether a youth minimum wage of $7.50 an hour for those under 18 should stand. Opponents say it is discriminatory and an affront to voters who overwhelmingly passed a minimum wage hike 2014.
“It was not a challenging job to get enough signatures to get it on the ballot,” Democratic Party Chairwoman Ann Tornberg said with a laugh. “People wanted to sign that petition.”
Supporters of the youth minimum wage ballot issue argue it would help young people get their first job, and that the 2014 minimum wage campaign focused on adult workers who support a family, not on young workers. Republican Sen. David Novstrup, who sponsored the law, said it’s a “small adjustment” impacting very few people.
Two years ago, voters raised the minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $8.50, increased the $2.13 hourly tip wage to half the minimum wage and tied future increases to the cost of living. Months later, the Republican-held Legislature carved out a $7.50 hourly wage for people under 18 that isn’t tied to future cost-of-living increases.
Because activists were successful in sending the law to the voters, it didn’t go into effect as intended in 2015, and the statewide minimum wage has since bumped up to $8.55.
The wage hike has made Jason Parker more reluctant to hire teenagers at the 1481 Grille in Arlington and at his businesses in Brookings; he just brought on his first under-16 employee since the increase.
Parker plans to vote for the youth minimum wage and take advantage of the option if it becomes available, because it means he could hire more high school students, who can be expensive and time-consuming to train and who may not last long.
“That dollar does mean a lot because then it would allow us to be able to hire more high school students so they get that opportunity to make money, to get an education, to gain experience in the workforce,” he said.
The South Dakota Retailers Association, which worked to defeat the minimum wage ballot measure, isn’t going to take an active role on the youth minimum wage.
That’s not the case for 16-year-old Briggs Tople, a high school junior in Aberdeen whose switch from Republican to Democratic politics was prompted by the youth minimum wage law. Tople worked at a children’s theater program over the summer for minimum wage and said he wants to do the same next year.
“I go out of my way to volunteer, so when I actually have the chance to get paid, it’s very nice for me,” Tople said. “We just work our butts off to be in the positions we are, and when we get a job, we take that job seriously.”
Tople contacted lawmakers and spoke against the bill without luck. Now, he’s campaigning for Democratic state Senate candidate Cory Heidelberger, who helped lead the push to send the youth minimum wage to the ballot.
Madison Dairy Queen owner DeLon Mork, who opposed the 2014 minimum wage increase, said he doesn’t know how he’ll vote. But Mork said he wouldn’t take advantage of a lower youth wage if granted the option because he bases pay on his competitors’ wages.
“Do I support the theory? Certainly I do because there are businesses that aren’t able to pay,” he said. “A lot of small businesses have a hard time paying the higher minimum wage.”