On March 5th, 2021, Delaware’s senators made national news by being two of eight Democrats in the U.S. Senate to vote against including a $15 minimum wage in the federal Coronavirus relief package. Four days later, a $15 minimum wage bill was introduced into the Delaware Senate with all 14 of the chamber’s Democrats co-sponsoring it along with 18 out of 26 House Democrats.
This year sees the greatest opportunity yet for Delaware to increase its minimum wage to $15. However, the story of this effort did not start in 2021, and the base minimum wage is not the only policy that might be up for a vote this year.
A Brief History of the Minimum Wage
The first federal minimum wage law was passed in 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set it at 25 cents an hour. It was the culmination of a decades-long effort to ensure a living wage for all workers, but it was limited by the politics and law of its day. The first minimum wage only applied to workers dealing with interstate commerce, and it explicitly excluded agricultural and domestic workers who were overwhelmingly non-white.
Over time, the minimum wage has been expanded to include almost all workers, but some exceptions still remain. It is still legal to pay tipped workers a sub-minimum wage, assuming that they make it up in tips. It is also still legal to pay disabled workers pennies an hour through certain programs. In many states, including Delaware, it is also legal to pay young workers a sub-minimum wage or pay new workers a sub-minimum wage for the first few months of their employment.
While the 1960s saw great leaps forward in the minimum wage as a universal living wage, it slowly began to stagnate, and was raised at the federal level for the last time in 2009. However, the fight to raise the minimum wage has continued on. The Fight for $15 campaign began just three years later in 2012, spurred on by the organizing and advocacy of fast food workers. Four years later, Bernie Sanders made a federal $15 minimum wage a major part of his platform, and over the following years many state and local governments began to ease into $15.
In Delaware, the minimum wage was raised slightly in 2014 and 2018, and currently sits at $9.25. A full $15 minimum wage bill, SB105, was introduced in 2019, but the effort was stalled in the Senate Finance Committee over its cost to the state, which pays many of its workers less than $15 an hour.
Now, the push for a $15 minimum wage has seen new life in Delaware. Since almost losing a senate majority in 2016, the Democrats have worked their way to supermajorities in both the state House and the state Senate. In 2020, a slate of progressive primary victories, including many candidates running on explicitly pro-$15 platforms, spurred the desire for action even further.
Where The Bill Is Now
In 2021, the $15 minimum wage has been introduced again with the wind at its back. SB15 was introduced by Senator Jack Walsh with unanimous Democratic support in the Senate and 18 of the 21 needed votes in the House. On March 18th, the bill passed through the Senate easily on a party line vote, but weeks have now passed without a hearing in the House. That is because, despite a strong Democratic majority in the House, SB15 still faces several structural barriers before it can come before a full floor vote.
When SB15 was heard in the state Senate, it had to pass through two committees: the Senate Labor Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. Since all of the Democrats in these committees were sponsors of the bill, both released the bill on simple party-line votes.
However, when SB15 was sent to the State House, Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Democrat who is not a co-sponsor of the bill, assigned it to the House Economic Development Committee instead of the House Labor Committee. That move puts the bill in a much tougher situation.
The House Labor Committee has 10 Democrats, all of whom are co-sponsors of SB15, and only two Republicans. On the other hand, the House Economic Development Committee has 8 Democrats and 5 Republicans. Two of those Democrats, Bill Bush and Andria Bennett, have not co-sponsored the bill. Therefore, if neither one of them votes it out of committee, it doesn’t matter how many other people support it, it will die in committee.
This puts a lot of power in the hands of Representatives Bill Bush and Andria Bennett. Bush, the chair of the committee, has publicly expressed that he does not support raising the minimum wage to $15 in this session. That means that Andria Bennett, a Democrat with a historically more conservative voting record, must both vote to release the bill from committee for it to pass.
Even if it is able to make it out of the House Economic Development Committee, SB15 must then go through the House Appropriations committee, for the same reason that it needed to go through Senate Finance: it will cost the state money. This is a committee with 4 Democrats and 2 Republicans. But once again the chair of the committee, William Carson, has stated that he does not support the bill this year. If he were to vote against releasing the bill, that would tie the committee vote at 3-3 and prevent the bill from going to the floor.
While SB15 needs 21 votes to pass the house, it must first make it past these crucial three votes to even be considered. The presence of the House Majority Leader and Majority Whip as co-sponsors of this bill makes it more likely that it will be able to clear these hurdles, regardless of the personal feelings of individual legislators. But it is not a guarantee, and the assignment to an unfavorable committee raises questions about leadership’s commitments to raising the minimum wage.
The Subminimum Wages
SB15 is not the only minimum wage bill has been introduced this year. Many of the existing exceptions to the minimum wage are also being challenged in Delaware. Three bills have been introduced that would remove those exceptions.
The first is HB94, which looks to increase the tipped minimum wage in Delaware. The tipped minimum wage used to be two-thirds of the regular minimum wage, but in 1989 it was changed to be a flat $2.23 per hour, where it has remained ever since. HB94 would change this, bringing it back to 65% of the regular minimum wage.
The next bill is HB122, which seeks to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for disabled workers in Delaware. Notably, this bill is co-sponsored by Andria Bennett, whose vote will be needed on the SB15 bill in the House Economic Development Committee. This bill already made it out of the House Revenue and Finance committee, and has been placed on the ready list, meaning that it can be voted on when put on the schedule.
The final bill addressing sub-minimum wages is HB88, which seeks to eliminate Delaware’s Youth & Training Wage, a new feature of Delaware’s minimum wage structure introduced in the 2018 budget negotiations. Similar to HB122, this bill has been co-sponsored by Andria Bennett, has been passed out of the House Revenue and Finance committee, and has been placed on the ready list.
SB15 has been the main source of attention for the minimum wage fight in Delaware, but these other bills have the potential to transform the way workers are compensated in Delaware almost as drastically.
What Happens Next
This current slate of minimum wage bills has been in the works for a long time. However, even with the changes in the state legislature over the past several years, the fate of these bills is still uncertain. Any of them could still be killed, amended, passed, or stricken depending on the votes of just a few legislators.
The next steps will be made once the state legislature goes back into session on April 20th. The Economic Development hearing for SB15 has been scheduled for April 21st at 3pm, and HB94 will likely get a hearing in the same committee later on. These hearings all have the opportunity for public comment, giving the public the opportunity to make their voices heard on this bill. By participating in public comment in these hearings and by contacting your legislators, you can make your voice heard on this issue