Small-business owners push back against ballot measure to increase Nebraska's minimum wage

Associated Press

Small-business owners who oppose Nebraska's minimum wage ballot measure are taking their case to voters, despite lukewarm opposition from the state's largest business groups.

The issue will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot. The proposal is backed by unions and advocacy groups for workers, while business groups generally oppose it.

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The proposal would increase Nebraska's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour — the same as the federal minimum — to $9 an hour by 2016. Supporters from Nebraskans for Better Wages argue the state's wage hasn't kept pace with inflation or worker productivity.

Gary Tharnish, owner of Burton Tyrrell's Flowers in Lincoln, said Thursday that the measure would force him to raise prices, work harder or wait longer to hire employees. He spoke outside the Capitol at a news conference organized by the Platte Institute, a right-leaning Omaha think tank.

Tharnish said he has five employees, all of whom earn more than the minimum wage, though three started at that level.

"I spend a lot my time teaching, and I love helping people get a start," Tharnish said. "A minimum wage job is where you get a start in life."

The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry argues the state minimum should mirror the federal one, but isn't actively campaigning against the measure. Barry Kennedy, the group's president, has said most members already pay well above the minimum wage and don't view it as a major concern.

Opponents of the measure haven't poured much money into the effort, said Robert Hallstrom, director of the Nebraska Federation of Independent Business.

"I think it impacts all businesses, but probably the smaller businesses more," Hallstrom said.

Proposals to increase the minimum wage are generally popular with voters. New Jersey approved an $8.25 hourly minimum wage last year, and in 2006 voters approved minimum wage increases in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio.

The Platte Institute released a report this week arguing that the wage increase would hurt low-skill workers by leading to cuts in the hours and increase the cost of the goods and services.

Nebraska's minimum wage was last increased in 2009. Twenty-one states have minimum wages above the federal minimum, including the bordering states of Colorado and Missouri.

Martha Jenkins, who runs the Lake Ridge Golf Course near Plattsmouth along with a small restaurant and country club, expects the measure will pass and has already cut three positions. The businesses currently have 12 employees.

She said the increase would hurt rural businesses with lower customer volumes more than those in places such as Lincoln or Omaha.

Instead of hiring a dishwasher for $9 an hour, she said, she may ask other employees to pick up the slack. Jenkins said she averages 100-hour work weeks to keep the business running and doesn't have time to campaign against the proposal.

"It would be great if people would listen and understand where we're headed if we pass this," Jenkins said. "But I don't see them listening."