News Story

Michigan Democrats Slam Changes To Minimum Wage Law — While Paying Their Interns Nothing

Economist: Wage mandate ‘ends up hurting the people it is supposed to protect’

Michigan’s legislative Democrats have launched ferocious opposition to efforts by majority Republicans, in the few remaining weeks of the legislative session, to temper some of what GOP lawmakers view as ill-advised initiatives to protect workers from free-market forces.

But do those Democrats’ concerns extend to workers who actually work for them? Maybe not.

Consider the state minimum wage, set to increase to $12 an hour by 2022 under citizen-initiated (petition drive) legislation adopted in September. It might now be revised by lawmakers, some of them in the last weeks of their time in office.

Democrats almost uniformly oppose a GOP proposal to increase the wage, now at $9.25 an hour, more gradually than the new law calls for. The new law sets the minimum wage at $12 an hour by 2022; the GOP proposal calls for that rate to be reached by 2030. Yet even as Democratic legislators resist that idea, they seek to secure the services of those willing to work for nothing.

A look at web pages for employment opportunities posted by the Legislature this week reveals 14 Democrats in the House and three in the Senate who are looking for subordinates willing to fill unpaid positions as legislative interns, working variable but mandatory hours.

“Selected candidates will gain valuable hands-on office and legislative experience in a fast-paced environment,” according to several of the postings. “Unpaid ... but college credit is possible.”

State Rep. Darrin Camilleri, a Democrat from Brownstown Township, recently spoke to Crain’s Detroit Business. He called the proposed slowdown to the law’s timetable “really troubling,” and said, “They (Republicans) don’t want to pay workers, essentially is what it looks like.”

Earlier this year, Camilleri himself posted a solicitation for an intern to assist his campaign — for a minimum 10 hours per week — with door-knocking and telephone work. It made no mention of compensation.

Camilleri did not respond to email and phone inquiries this week that sought comment on the apparent conflict between the rhetorical and real-world practices of those opposing amendments to the minimum wage law.

David Hebert, an assistant professor of economics at Aquinas College and member of the Mackinac Center Board of Scholars, questioned the effectiveness of the minimum wage requirement.

“Providing workers with a higher income, to live a more dignified life ... is a laudable goal,” Hebert said. “But the question is, ‘Will a higher minimum wage do that?,’ and the answer is — no.”

“If you make labor more expensive, employers buy less of it. It ends up hurting the people it is supposed to protect,” Hebert said.

The practice of offering unpaid internships, widely used by both legislative Democrats and Republicans, is a tacit acknowledgment of that reality, he said.

Entry-level workers, including unpaid interns, do realize tangible benefits, Hebert said, including experience, connections and opportunity for advancement. Ironically, working for free is the kind of privilege not available to those a minimum wage is designed to protect — those who can’t afford to go without income, Hebert said.

“No one wants to work for a lifetime at the minimum wage,” he said.

What a steep increase in the minimum wage — or unpaid internships to those who can afford to work without pay — does is remove the bottom rung of the ladder of upward mobility for those who need it most, he said.