Wednesday, June 28, 2017

28/6/17: Seattle's Minimum Wage Lessons for California

Two states and Washington DC are raising their minimum wages comes July 1, with Washington DC’s minimum wage rising to $12.50 per hour, the highest state-wide minimum wage level in the U.S. This development comes after 19 states raised their minim wages since January 1, 2017. In addition, New York and Oregon are now using geographically-determined minimum wage, with urban residents and workers receiving higher minimum wages than rural workers.

Still, one of the most ambitious minimum wage laws currently on the books is that of California. For now, California’s minimum wage (for employers with 26 or more workers) is set us $10.50 per hour (a rise of $0.5 per hour on 2016), which puts California in the fourth place in the U.S. in terms of State-mandated minimum wages. It will increase automatically to $11.00 comes January 1, 2018. Thereafter, the minimum wage is set to rise by $1.00 per annum into 2022, reaching $15.00. From 2023 on, minimum wage will be indexed to inflation. Smaller employers (with 25 or fewer employees) will have an extra year to reach $15.00 nominal minimum wage marker, from current (2017) minimum wage level of $10.00 per hour. All in, in theory, current minimum wage employee working full time will earn $21,840 per annum, and this will rise (again in theory) by $1,040 per annum in 2018. So, again, in theory, nominal earnings for a full-time minimum wage employee will reach $31,200 in 2022.

In cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, local minim wages are even higher. San Francisco is planning to raise its minim wage to $15.00 per hour in 2018, while Los Angeles is targeting the same level in 2020. This means that in 2018, San Francisco minimum wage workers will be $8,320 per annum better off than the State minimum wage earners, and Los Angeles minim wage earnings will be $4,160 above the State level in 2020.

UC Berkeley research centre for labor economics,, does some numbers crunching on the distributional impact of California minimum wages. Except, really, it doesn’t. Why?

Because the problem with minimum wage impact estimates is that it ignores a range of other factors, such as, for example the impacts of minimum wage hikes on substations away from labor into capital (including technological capital), and the impacts of jobs offshoring, etc. While economists can control for these factors imperfectly, it is impossible to know with certainty how specific moves in minimum wages will effect incentives for companies to increase capital intensity of their operations, change skills mix for employees, alter future growth and product development plans, etc.

What we do have, however, is historical evidence to go by. And that evidence is a moving target. In particular, it is a moving target because as minimum wages continue to increase, at some point (we call these inflation points), past historical relationships between wages and hours worked, wages and technological investments, wages and R&D, and so on, change as well.

Take the most recent example of Seattle.

In 2016, Seattle raised its $11.00 per hour minimum wage to $13 per hour, the highest in the U.S. Subsequent protests demanded an increase to $15.00 per hour in 2017. However, research by economists at the University of Washington shows that the wage hike could have
1) Triggered steep declines in employment for low-wage workers, and
2) Resulted in a drop in paid hours of work for workers who kept their jobs.

Overall, these negative impacts have more than cancelled out the benefits of higher wages, so that, on average, low-wage workers now earn $125 per month less than before the minimum wage was hiked in January 2016. In simple terms, instead of rising by $4,160 per annum, minimum wage earners’ wages fell $1,500 per annum, creating the adverse movement in earnings of $5,160. Given current minimum wage earnings, in theory, delivering $27,040 per annum in full time wages, this is hardly an insignificant number. For details of the study, see

The really worrying matter is that the empirical estimates presented in the University of Washington studies do not cover longer-term potential impacts from capital deepening and technological displacement of minimum wage jobs, because, put simply, we don’t have enough time elapsing from the latest minimum wage hike. Another worrying matter is that, like the majority of studies before it, the Washington study does not directly control for the effects of Seattle’s booming local economy on minimum wage impacts: as Seattle faces general unemployment rate of 3.2 percent, the adverse impacts of the latest hike in the minimum wages can be underestimated due to the tightness in labor markets.

Now, consider the recent past: in her Presidential bid, Hillary Clinton was advocating a federal minimum wage hike to $12.00 per hour from $7.25 per hour. That was hardly enough for a large number of social activists who pushed for even higher hikes. This tendency amongst activists - to pave the road to hell with good intentions, while using someone else’s money and work prospects - is quite problematic. Econometric analysis of minimum wage effects is highly ambiguous and the expected impacts of minimum wage hikes are highly uncertain ex ante. This ambiguity and uncertainty adversely impacts not only employers, including smaller businesses, but also employees. Including those on minimum wages. It also impacts prospective minimum wage employees who, as Seattle evidence suggests, might face lower prospects of gaining a job. More worrying, the parts of the minimum wage literature that show modest positive impacts from minimum wage hikes are based on the data for minimum wage increases from lower levels to moderate levels, not from high levels to extremely high, as is the case with Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities.

That point seems to be well-reflected in the latest study from the University of Washington. In fact, June 2017 paper results stand clearly contrasted by 2016 study that showed that April 2015 hike in Seattle’s minimum wage from $9.47 per hour to $11.00 per hour was basically neutral in terms of its impact on wages. Losses to those workers who ended up without a job post-minimum wage hike were offset by gains for those worker who kept their employment. In effect, April 2015 hike was a transfer of money from jobs-losing workers to jobs keepers.

In a separate study, from the UC Berkeley labor economics center, the researchers found that Seattle’s minimum wage hikes were actually effective in boosting incomes of minimum wage workers, albeit only in one sector: the food industry, and the results are established on a cumulative basis for 2009-2016 period. In addition, University of Washington study used higher quality, more detailed and directly comparable data on minimum wage earners than the UC Berkeley study. However, on the opposite side of the argument, the former study excluded multi-location enterprises, e.g. fast food companies, who are often large scale employers of minimum wage workers. The UC Berkeley study is quite bizarre, to be honest, in so far as it focuses on one sector, while the study from the UofW clearly suggests that wider data is available.

In other words, the UC Berkeley study does not quite contradict or negate the University of Washington study, although it highlights the complexity of analysing minimum wage impacts.

PS: This lifts the veil of strangeness from the UC Berkeley study: It turns out UC Berkeley study was a commissioned hit, financed by the office of the Mayor of Seattle to pre-empt forthcoming UofW study. Worse, the Berkeley team were provided by the Mayor of Seattle with the pre-released draft of the UofW paper. This is at best unethical for both the Mayor's office and for the UC Berkeley team.

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