Sen. Smith supports wage bill that would hurt lowest-paid workers

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Oregon Republican U.S. Senator Gordon Smith voted against a federal minimum wage proposal Oct. 19 that would not have affected his lowest-paid constituents, but later that same day he voted in support of an amendment that would have severely impacted their pay.

Both proposals — amendments to a fiscal 2006 spending bill — needed 60 votes to pass.

Smith’s “no” vote came on an amendment introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass) to raise the hourly federal minimum wage of $5.15 by $1.10 in three increments over two years. The wage increase did not impact Oregon workers because the state’s minimum wage is already higher than the feds at $7.25 an hour.

The bill was defeated 51-47, with all “no” votes coming from Republicans.

Smith, however, voted “yes” on an amendment offered by fellow Republican Michael Enzi of Wyoming. That amendment would have combined the same $1.10 increase, but also attached draconian provisions to exempt workers from the minimum wage, cut overtime pay and weaken job safety and health protection — all of which would have hurt Oregon’s minimum-wage workforce — plus millions of other workers nationwide.

Specifically, under the Enzi amendment, Fair Labor Standards Act protections for all workers at businesses with revenues up to $1 million would have been eliminated. 

The Enzi amendment would have abolished the 40-hour workweek and replaced it with an 80-hour, two-week work period. Today, those who work 50 hours in one week and 30 the next receive 10 hours of time-and-a-half overtime pay. Under the amendment, such workers would no longer get overtime pay, making mandatory overtime cheaper for employers. Construction workers, for example, whose work hours often vary from week to week, would be particularly hard hit, said the Economic Policy Institute.

The Enzi amendment also would have invalidated Oregon’s law (as well as six other states) requiring employers to pay the full minimum wage to tipped employees. In convoluted language, the amendment prohibited states and local governments from enforcing any state or local minimum wage law or ordinance that requires all of tipped employees’ wages to be paid in cash by the employer.

The Enzi amendment sought to excuse millions of employers from paying fines for violations of federal safety and health, pension and labor regulations. First violations of “information collection requirements” — even if knowing and willful — would have be excused for the more than 5 million businesses with revenues under $7 million a year. Information collection requirements include a broad class of notices and postings required in order to inform and protect employees, such as hazardous material warnings, training requirements, and information about pension and health benefit plans, EPI said.

The Enzi amendment failed by a vote of 42-57.

Shortly after the vote, Smith posted a press release prominently on his Web site that stated: “Smith Votes to Raise Minimum Wage.”

Oregon’s junior senator said that, “although Oregonians receive a wage higher than required by federal law, it’s important to raise the minimum wage across the country. Working families are facing increases in home heating costs and high gas prices, and their wages should reflect these circumstances.”

Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, called the Enzi amendment, “a shameful sham of a bill that would have undermined Oregon’s voter-approved minimum wage law for tipped workers.

“It was bad enough for Sen. Smith to vote for this bill,” Nesbitt continued, “but even worse when he tried to tout his vote as a good thing for minimum- wage workers. This was the politics of deception at its worst.”

The national AFL-CIO said that Republicans in Congress have thwarted raising the minimum wage every time it has come up since 1997, yet over that same time period they have voted to increase their own salaries seven times.

The federal minimum wage has increased only eight times since being established by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.

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