House Democrats on Monday supported a Republican bill that would delay a scheduled increase in American Samoa's minimum wage for more than a year.
Democrats routinely clamor for a higher minimum wage in the U.S. and higher wages abroad, and have said these increases would help working families. But even Democrats have accepted the need for lengthy delays in American Samoa, where wage hikes required under federal law have been blamed for killing jobs.
After a brief debate in the House, the bill was passed easily in a voice vote, with no apparent opposition.
Congress passed legislation in 2007 requiring steady minimum wage hikes in American Samoa. But in 2011, the Government Accountability Office released a report indicating that those increases were largely to blame for a huge drop in employment.
"In American Samoa, employment fell 19 percent from 2008 to 2009 and 14 percent from 2006 to 2009," the report said. "Private sector officials said the minimum wage was one of a number of factors making business difficult."
That same report also warned that implementing future wage hikes on schedule would crush tuna canneries, a major industry of the remote U.S. territory.
"In the tuna canning industry, future minimum wage increases would affect the wages of 99 percent of hourly-wage workers employed by the two employers included in GAO's questionnaire," it said. "The employers reported taking cost-cutting actions from June 2009 to June 2010, including laying off workers and freezing hiring. The employers attributed most of these actions largely to the minimum wage increases."
Supporters of the effort to freeze wages note that American Samoa's remote location requires special consideration when it comes to mandating a wage hike. Still, the experiment of tinkering with wages has yielded results that fit in with the broad economic theory offered by Republicans, which is that forcing companies to pay higher wages leads directly to higher costs for employers that can end up killing many low-wage jobs.
Democrats haven't said explicitly that they agree with that Republican argument, but in the case of American Samoa, they have tacitly gone along with the GOP. President Obama has already signed legislation into law in 2010 and 2012 that delayed the minimum wage hike in American Samoa.
And based on the strength of today's vote, it seems likely Obama will sign a third bill. During debate on the bill, both Republicans and Democrats called on members to support it.
"It would delay for 15 months a minimum wage increase that will take effect in American Samoa in just two days," said Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Mich., who added that American Samoa itself has asked for the delay. "If this increase takes effect, it will harm the very people it was intended to help, the hardworking men and women of American Samoa."
Democrats didn't sent up any voting members of Congress from their side to debate, and instead had Del. Gregorio Sablan, D-Northern Mariana Islands, defend the bill. Sablan said he supports minimum wage hikes in general, but agreed that realities in American Samoa have to be considered.
"I recognize that there's such a thing as economic reality," he said. "Raising the minimum wage too quickly could have detrimental affect, could cause employment to shrink."
Under current law, American Samoa's minimum wage is scheduled to rise by the end of September by 50 cents an hour. Wages in American Samoa vary somewhat across different industries, but hover in the $4 to $5 an hour range.
Under the bill from Del. Amata Radewagen, R-A.S., that wage hike would be delayed until the end of 2016, and the next wage hike would take place three years later. After passing in the House by a voice vote, it would need to pass the Senate and be signed by President Obama to become law.