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Minimum wage loss may impact community college degrees

The Michigan Court of Claims handed the State of Michigan a loss last week that was nearly four years in the making. Mothering Justice, et. al v Nessel sought to vacate the 2018 legislature’s adoption of two ballot measures. One would have raised Michigan’s minimum wage to $12 by 2022, and then add automatic wage increases tied to inflation. The other would have provided paid sick leave for part-time workers.

The ballot initiatives gained enough valid signatures to appear on the November 2018 ballot. The Legislature exercised its option to adopt the measures, eliminating the referenda from the ballot. After adopting the measures, the Legislature immediately gutted them.

The plaintiffs filed suit in the Michigan Court of Claims, arguing that the Legislature’s amendments violated Article 2 ยง 9 of the Michigan Constitution. The section outlines the ballot initiative process. It clearly states that the Legislature can only accept, reject, or propose an alternative. An alternative would appear side-by-side on the ballot with the petition initiative.

In his ruling, Court of Claims judge Douglas Shapiro made short work of the State’s defense. He issued a summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. The ruling voids the legislature’s amendments, meaning that the State’s minimum wage should jump from its current $9.87 to $12.00 immediately, if the State does not file an appeal. Additionally, the Michigan Paid Medical Leave Act, which allows part-time workers to accrue 40 hours per year of sick leave (and roll over up to 40 unused hours per benefit year), will also take immediate effect.

Community college degrees compete with minimum wage jobs

For community colleges, the ruling generates additional pressure because it raises the wage floor for minimum wage jobs, and further dilutes the earnings difference between a minimum wage job and a salaried position for the average associate degree holder. By making unskilled positions worth more, the law further narrows the difference between a high school diploma and a community college degree.

The pandemic and the ongoing retirements by Baby Boomers have created a nationwide labor shortage. Most employers have encountered market-rate wage competition for workers. In response, they have raised their wages accordingly. The hospitality industry is a notable exception.

The court order creates an immediate sea change for minimum-wage workers. Unfortunately, community colleges can’t make their degrees worth more with the same speed and force. It may take community colleges in Michigan years to react to the need to create degree programs that increase the earnings gap between a high school diploma and a community college degree. Unfortunately, time is exactly what community colleges don’t have. The need to address the woeful wages associated with community college degrees is urgent. It likely requires a top-to-bottom review of all degree programs to see what community colleges can do to make their alumni worth more in the job market.

It’s a tall order, but surely the sheer volume of executives at WCC puts it in a good position to address this challenge.

Photo Credit: Marco Verch Professional Photographer , via Flickr