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Voters could give 2 million workers a raise on Election Day

State ballot measures could increase minimum wages and extend paid sick leave.

Fast food worker Qiana Shields protesting for a higher wage in Georgia in 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman
Fast food worker Qiana Shields protesting for a higher wage in Georgia in 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

On Tuesday, American voters will head to the polls to decide who will become president for the next four years. But that’s not the only decision facing many of them; in a number of states, voters are poised to significantly change life for low-wage workers.

In four states — Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington — voters will decide whether or not to raise the minimum wage to $12 or more. And in Arizona and Washington, voters will decide whether to require that businesses offer their employees paid sick leave.

The minimum wage ballot measures in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine all include an initial wage bump that will gradually increase until it hits $12 by 2020. Washington, which currently has the country’s highest minimum wage at $9.47 an hour, would go even further, hiking its wage to $11 next year and then gradually raising it to $13.50 by 2020. Some of these increases would be steep; Maine, for example, currently has a minimum wage of just $7.50.

The $12 level is significant. It’s about where the minimum wage would be if it hadn’t stagnated and lost value to inflation since the late 1960s. It would also restore the relationship between the lowest wages and wages for the typical worker, bringing the ratio back to where it was in the 60s. And while the majority of states already require minimum wages higher than the federal level of $7.25, just three are currently set to increase it to $12 or more: California, New York, and Oregon.

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Ballot measures to raise state minimum wages are usually popular, and nearly all of those proposed in the 2014 midterm elections ended up passing. That success, in fact, was a motivating factor for the organization supporting these efforts. “What 2014 showed us is that there was interest in this work,” said Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of The Fairness Project, which offers financing and tools for ballot measure campaigns.

This year’s measures all appear to be on track for victory. In Arizona, more than 58 percent of voters said they were in favor of Proposition 206 last month; other polls found 55 percent support for Amendment 70 in Colorado, 57 percent for Question 4 in Maine, and 58 percent for Initiative 1433 in Washington.

The number of workers that will be impacted by the 2016 measures is likely to be higher than those affected by the last round of wins. The Fairness Project reports that if all four state measures pass, 2.1 million workers will be impacted, more than five times as many as in 2014.

If the paid sick leave measures attached to minimum wage ballot questions pass in Arizona and Washington, those states will join California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Vermont, bringing the total number of states with paid sick leave to seven. Success in Arizona and Washington would also extend the benefit to 1.9 million new workers.

While every other developed country requires employers to give workers a paid day off if they or their family members get sick, there is no such requirement in the U.S. And the burden falls heaviest on those who make the least: nearly 40 percent of the lowest-paid private sector workers don’t have access to paid sick leave, while more than 80 percent of the best-paid workers do.

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Both minimum wage hike proposals and paid sick leave have failed to gain traction at the federal level. Congress hasn’t increased the national minimum wage since 2009, and bills introduced by Democratic members in recent years haven’t gone anywhere. The same can be said for the bills Democrats have introduced that would require all companies to offer paid sick leave.

That raises the stakes to address these issues through direct democracy. “We really see ballots as circumventing broken politics,” Schleifer said. “In seven years Congress has given a minimum wage increase to zero Americans. This cycle, 2.1 million Americans will be able to get a wage increase based on the efforts of ballots.”

And it can transcend party politics, as evidenced by the wage and sick leave measures in Arizona, a state where Republicans control all three branches of the government. “One of the things that grinds everything to a halt is the partisanship,” Schleifer said. “A ballot can wipe clean some of that partisanship.”