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Boo, Nebraska: Youth Minimum Wage Undermines Basic Labor Rights

Kids just can’t catch a break on the prairie. Nebraska is currently considering a youth minimum wage that almost exactly parallels the kid-exploiting, voter-disrespecting Senate Bill 177 passed by the South Dakota Legislature this grim winter. The Nebraska bill, currently enjoying strong support in its legislature, would cut the minimum wage by a dollar for workers under 18. The Nebraska bill fiddles with an increase to $9.00 approved by voters in the 2014 general election. And just like South Dakota’s Newspeak legislators, supporters of the Nebraska bill say cutting wages is about increasing “opportunity”:

Mike Brown, who owns Adams Super Foods, said the lower pay for students makes sense for small business owners who can only afford to hire a few employees. If the minimum wage is $9, Brown said he’ll hire workers who “can do it all,” including tasks like selling alcohol and tobacco that are off-limits to minor employees.

“It is tough out there. It is absolutely tough,” Brown said. “But it’s an awful lot of money to pay a 15 year old that can’t do everything a 19 or 20 year old or middle-aged person could do.”

Sen. Merv Riepe, of Omaha, supports the lower student wage but acknowledged views on the issue are shaped by personal experiences. Riepe notes he had the financial ability to encourage his son to take lower-paying internships, which paid off in valuable career experience.

“I wanted it to be an opportunity for kids to get jobs,” he said. “I’m not trying to blow apart the minimum wage increase” [Anne Gronewold, “Minimum Wage Cut? Nebraska Teens Say They Need the Money,” AP via Kearney Hub, 2015.05.04].

I hear this argument from folks on the petition-drive trail regularly, that kids are somehow worth less, and that their ignorance and indolence mean they deserve a lower threshold of protection for their rights as laborers. But if we can make such a judgment about an entire class of laborers based solely on age, why cannot we apply the same judgment to adult workers who appear to be dumb or lazy? Call it the “Meathead Minimum Wage”—if an applicant looks stupid or laggardly, the employer can give that applicant an opportunity but pay a buck or two under standard minimum wage. Or why don’t we say that, since women in general can’t lift as much weight as men, we’re going to enact a “Delicate Flower of Womanhood Minimum Wage” for industries involving any sort of physical labor?

Rules like that erode the very concept of a minimum wage, the idea that we shall accord to every human being in the workforce the same fundamental dignity, a minimum wage to compensate for the time and liberty that every person sacrifices by punching in to take the boss’s orders. We allow all sorts of additional pay for performance, experience, and extra skills. We allow employers to fire those workers who cannot meet minimum standards of performance (or, in South Dakota, we let employers fire workers for mostly no reason at all). But all workers shall get at least X, no matter what they look like, no matter when they were born, and no matter what you think of them.

Let’s keep it simple, and let’s keep it moral: one minimum wage for all, one standard level of labor protection for everyone we allow to work, even the ones some people think are knuckleheads.


  1. Doug 2015-05-05 14:59

    Fortunately Nebraskans benefit from an anti-tampering clause that prevents the Legislature from amending or repealing enacted initiated measures without a 2/3 majority vote. Now, as the first linked article pointed out, will they be able to gather the votes? Here’s to hoping no!

  2. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-05-05 15:04


    “Delicate Flower of Womanhood Minimum Wage”


  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-05-05 16:38

    Doug, that’s a really interesting point! Let’s look at the source of that anti-tampering rule, Article 3 Section 2 of the Nebraska Constitution:

    The first power reserved by the people is the initiative whereby laws may be enacted and constitutional amendments adopted by the people independently of the Legislature. This power may be invoked by petition wherein the proposed measure shall be set forth at length. If the petition be for the enactment of a law, it shall be signed by seven percent of the registered voters of the state, and if the petition be for the amendment of the Constitution, the petition therefor shall be signed by ten percent of such registered voters. In all cases the registered voters signing such petition shall be so distributed as to include five percent of the registered voters of each of two-fifths of the counties of the state, and when thus signed, the petition shall be filed with the Secretary of State who shall submit the measure thus proposed to the electors of the state at the first general election held not less than four months after such petition shall have been filed. The same measure, either in form or in essential substance, shall not be submitted to the people by initiative petition, either affirmatively or negatively, more often than once in three years. If conflicting measures submitted to the people at the same election be approved, the one receiving the highest number of affirmative votes shall thereby become law as to all conflicting provisions. The constitutional limitations as to the scope and subject matter of statutes enacted by the Legislature shall apply to those enacted by the initiative. Initiative measures shall contain only one subject. The Legislature shall not amend, repeal, modify, or impair a law enacted by the people by initiative, contemporaneously with the adoption of this initiative measure or at any time thereafter, except upon a vote of at least two-thirds of all the members of the Legislature.

    That restriction has no time limit The Nebraska minimum wage increase thus requires a 2/3 vote of the Legislature to change it from now on. South Dakota has no such provision for state laws; city governments must wait one year before changing municipal initiatives (SDCL 9-20-5.1) or referenda (SDCL 9-20-17).

    Note also that Nebraskans can submit initiatives four months before the general election and can circulate petitions any time. In South Dakota, per SDCL 2-1-1.2, we can circulate petitions only every other non-election year.

  4. Richard Schriever 2015-05-05 18:10

    Interesting also to note that evidently Mr. Brown, the owner of Adams Super foods is unaware that one must be 21 (NOT 18, 19, OR 20) to legally sell alcohol tobacco or lottery tickets. Perhaps his wages should be reduced due to his lack of knowledge about his own business??

  5. Les 2015-05-06 18:16

    You are confusing issues on the petition drive, Cory. The I&R on 177 is about the legislature subverting the voice of the citizens not the value of our kids. That issue was decided in the election.

    Sell it that way and you shouldnt have nearly the arguments against 177 going to a vote.

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