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New Mexico Senate passes bill to remove wage cap for students


Walter Rubel  |  Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative
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LAS CRUCES - The New Mexico Senate has voted to remove a provision in the state’s minimum wage law that allows high school students to be paid at a lower hourly rate than their co-workers.

Senate Bill 35 passed on a 26-15 vote in the Senate on Thursday, Feb. 18, and now moves to the House. It is one of several bills dealing with the minimum wage that have been introduced this session.

The Minimum Wage Act passed in 2019 called for an increase to $10.50 an hour at the start of this year, then going up to $12 in 2023. However, it included a cap at $8.50 for high school students. HB 35 would remove the cap.

Sen. Mark Moores, R, Albuquerque, said the provision in the 2019 bill was the result of a compromise, but the bill’s sponsor, Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, disputed that.

“Every person on the other side voted against it except one who is no longer here (Sander Rue), so there was no grand bargain,” Steinborn said. “That’s the real history.”

He said the bill was about basic fairness.

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“High school students are contributing the same way as everyone else,” Steinborn said. “They’re doing the same work as their older colleagues next to them in line. They are essential workers at this critical time.”

And, he said, the high school wage provides an incentive for employers not to hire older workers to whom they would have to pay more.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said it was fair to pay high school students less because there are greater restrictions on when they can work and what they can do.

“They can only work a certain number of hours. You can only schedule them to work after school hours,” he said. “If they’re under 18, there are pieces of equipment they can’t operate. That’s one reason we need to have a little lower wage.”

Under state and federal labor laws, the minimum age for employment is 14. State law provides exemptions for newspaper carriers, children performing in the entertainment industry and children working at businesses owned by their parents where the jobs don’t involve hazardous work.

Workers aged 14 and 15 are limited to three hours in a school day and 18 hours in a school week. Those enrolled in the Work Experience and Career Exploration Program can work up to three hours on school days, including school hours, and 23 hours a week.

They are also limited to only working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. except in the summer, when evening hours are extended to 9 p.m. And they are prohibited from working around heavy equipment, explosives, electrical hazards, alcohol manufacturing or door-to-door sales.

Opponents of the bill argued that any worker who proves to be reliable and shows up on time each day will get a bump in pay right away. And, they said, for many young workers the opportunity to gain work experience is more important than the salary.

“There was a reason why we did this before, and that was to allow people to get into the job market and learn job skills,” said Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington. “This is an advantage to them. If you raise the minimum wage for the folks who are trying to get in, what you’re going to do is keep them out.”

Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R- Tijeras, said the bill would make it harder for families who don’t need their children to contribute to the household budget.

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“This bill will hurt families that want their young person to just have a job,” he said. “Lower-paying jobs are an entry point, and just having a job can be more important than the wage.”

But Sen. Carrie Hamblen, D-Las Cruces, said her experience growing up as the child of a single mother was much different. She got her first paid job as a swimming instructor at 14, helping to support her family, Hamblen said.

“I grew up in extreme poverty,” said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque. “I worked from a very young age. I wouldn’t dream of paying one worker less than another when that may be how they’re putting food on the table.”

The bill passed on a party-line vote and now moves to the House, where a similar piece of legislation has been introduced. House Bill 110 would also end the exemption for students, but would go further by adding nonstudents, age 18 and under, and tipped employees. HB 214, sponsored by Reps. Joanne Ferrary and Angelica Rubio, both D-Las Cruces, and Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, would repeal the exemption for disabled workers. And, HB 110, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2024,

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.