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Cotton bill to lift minimum wage to $10 in nation

State already at $11 an hour by Frank E. Lockwood | February 26, 2021 at 4:56 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced legislation Thursday that would raise the minimum wage for millions of Americans but not the workers of Arkansas.

It would also mandate use of E-Verify, an online system enabling employers to be sure their employees are entitled to work in the United States.

Cotton and U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, collaborated on the bill, which would raise the national minimum wage for the first time in more than a decade, from $7.25 per hour under current law to $10 in 2025.

Arkansas' existing minimum wage is $11, the result of a ballot measure that passed overwhelmingly in 2018.

Arkansans voted in 2018 to raise the state's minimum wage, $8.50 at the time, to $9.25 on Jan. 1, 2019; $10 on Jan. 1, 2020; and $11 on Jan. 1 of this year.

A raise in the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2025 wouldn't lead to major job losses, according to a 2019 study by the Congressional Budget Office. The wage increase would have "little effect on employment" but would also have "negligible effects on the number of people in poverty," the study found.

Democrats are pushing for a raise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

The increased wages proposed by Cotton would be delayed if the covid-19 emergency hasn't been lifted by Oct. 1 and would be phased in more gradually for businesses, including franchises, with fewer than 20 employees.

Increases after 2025 would be tied to inflation.

The 74-page "Higher Wages for American Workers Act of 2021" bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Shelley Capito, R-W.Va.; and Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Currently, 20 states and the District of Columbia already have minimum wages that are higher than Cotton has proposed.

Arkansas is the only Southern state with a minimum wage at or above $10 an hour.

Cotton, who is scheduled to speak today at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., was not available for comment Thursday.

In a news release, Cotton emphasized not only the bill's higher federal minimum wage but also its crackdown on employers who violate the law.

Under the bill, failure to use E-Verify could trigger major civil or criminal penalties. Those engaging in a "pattern or practice" of illegal hiring would face maximum penalties of up to $30,000 per "unauthorized alien" and/or imprisonment of up to 18 months.

"American workers today compete against millions of illegal immigrants for too few jobs with wages that are too low -- that's unfair," Cotton said. "Ending the black market for illegal labor will open up jobs for Americans. Raising the minimum wage will allow Americans filling those jobs to better support their families. Our bill does both."

Arkansans stand to benefit from the bill, even though it wouldn't affect mandatory minimum wages in the state, Cotton spokesman James Arnold said in a text message.

"By eliminating the black market for illegal labor, Senator Cotton's bill will raise the wages of American workers -- particularly for lower wage earners who compete against millions of illegal immigrants undercutting our own citizens in the job market," Arnold wrote.

On Thursday, Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray accused Cotton of "pandering to a political base" instead of proposing realistic minimum-wage legislation.

"It's not a good faith effort to get something done," he said.

"It doesn't help Arkansans a bit," Gray said, adding, "Isn't that his job?"

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., is studying the bill, his spokesman, Matt Wester, said.

Boozman opposes Democratic efforts to more than double the federal minimum wage, he added.

"The senator believes the inclusion of a $15 minimum wage in the latest COVID relief proposal is ill-advised. Congress should target any further assistance to those directly affected by the economic impact of the pandemic instead of pursuing a dramatic minimum wage hike at a time when many small businesses are still struggling," Wester wrote in an email.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson also opposes the Democratic proposal.

"An increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour should not be part of a Covid relief package, and it would be detrimental to creating jobs and building our economy in Arkansas," he said in a written statement. "I hope Congress pulls it out of the package."

The $11 per hour minimum wage in Arkansas "impacted our small businesses and it caused the state to increase the Medicaid reimbursement rates because of its impact on a number of providers," he added.

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