The minimum wage for workers in the USVI will increase by quick steps to $10.50 per hour by Jan. 1, 2017, and then be set by the currently defunct V.I. Wage Board, if a bill sent on for a final vote Thursday is enacted into law.
The bill [Bill 31-0236] sponsored by Sen. Jean Forde would increase the minimum wage to $8.35 per hour within several months of enactment, then again to $9.50 per hour by the end of 2016, and to $10.50 per hour by the end of 2017.
The legislation also urges Gov. Kenneth Mapp to appoint nominees to revive the V.I. Wage Board, which has been defunct since the 1990s.
As originally drafted, the bill also included provisions to sharply increase the minimum wage for tipped employees. Under current U.S. and V.I. law, tipped employees can be paid 30 percent of the federal $7.25 minimum wage. But employees must receive at least minimum wage including their tips. The bill would have increased tipped employee pay in stages to 70 percent of minimum wages by 2019.
Lisa Hamilton, speaking for the St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association and attorney Bennet Chan, representing an array of St. Thomas restaurants, argued that tipped employees routinely receive much more than minimum wage once tips are included and that increasing their pay was therefore unnecessary and more likely to reduce employment. They did not testify against raising the minimum wage overall. But they did oppose provisions to allow the V.I. Wage Board to set minimum wages in the future.
Several senators said they would support the bill but wanted to keep a close watch to see if it hurt employment.
"I don’t want to be pessimistic," Sen. Novelle Francis said, but added he was "concerned about the economy of St. Croix" and wants to check back in a year and see "that it doesn’t drive any businesses out of business in the future."
Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly said raising the minimum wage may not cost jobs at all because employees may "improve employee morale, which means they come to work. They look forward to being there. It builds camaraderie and this team mentality that is critical to the success of any business."
Forde asked what the minimum wage in Aruba was. Hamilton said she would have to check.
"I just did and it is $12.60," Forde said.
Senators amended the bill to remove the increased percentage for tipped employees and to make it take effect 90 days from its enactment.
Voting to send the bill on to the Senate floor were Forde, Francis, Rivera-O’Reilly and Sen. Kenneth Gittens. Sen. Janette Millin Young abstained. Sens. Justin Harrigan and Neville James were absent.
The committee voted to temporarily hold a bill on unifying the judiciary branch as one entity managed by the Supreme Court so that members could question Superior Court Presiding Judge Michael Dunston. Dunston read testimony Thursday but said he had to leave to catch a flight and so would not be able to answer questions.