Michigan judge's ruling could lead to minimum wage hike for workers

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Michigan judge ruled Tuesday a pair of 2018 voter-initiated laws increasing the minimum wage and instituting paid sick-leave requirements for employers should be put into effect, saying Republican lawmakers' strategy to circumvent them violated the Constitution.

The decision from Court of Claims Judge Douglas Shapiro threw a new wrinkle into a pivotal election year in the battleground state, potentially putting a $12 an hour minimum wage into effect. The current hourly minimum wage is $9.87.

Shapiro declared GOP-backed laws that altered the original initiatives and kept off the ballot the original proposals "voided." The original initiatives, which were the result of statewide petition campaigns, "remain in effect," Shapiro wrote.

FILE - In this May 29, 2018, file photo, Danielle Atkinson, a member of the Michigan Time to Care group that submitted signatures for a ballot initiative to mandate earned paid sick time, speaks in support of the measure at the Central United Methodist Church in Lansing, Mich. Michigan Republicans may stymie a pair of fall ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage and require paid sick leave by adopting a new tactic: pass the laws themselves, then change them later. Organizers of the ballot drives call it an underhanded effort to thwart the will of hundreds of thousands of people who signed their petitions.

Tuesday's ruling, which was nearly four years in the making, is expected to face an appeal, through which the sudden changes would likely be delayed. 

Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party and a lawyer who has represented the committees that backed the proposals, called the decision a "tremendous victory for working people and the initiative process."

However, Tuesday's developments could have a "crippling effect" on Michigan employers and employees, said Wendy Block, vice president of business advocacy and member engagement for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

"While we are still sorting through the details, we are stunned by this determination and its many varied implications," Block said.

In 2018, Michigan One Fair Wage circulated petitions to have voters consider a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2022 from $9.25, at the time, and tie the rate to inflation. At the same time, Michigan Time to Care backed a proposal to generally require employers to provide paid sick time to their workers.

However, the GOP-controlled Legislature adopted the two initiatives before Election Day, preventing the measures from seeing statewide votes.

The moves allowed lawmakers to return after Election Day and change the laws with simple majorities. If voters had approved them, future changes would have required a three-fourths super majority of support in the Legislature.

Republican lawmakers slowed the minimum wage increases, so the minimum wage would climb to $12.05 by 2030, eight years later than under the original proposal, and removed a connection to inflation for future increases.

In addition, the legislative version eliminated a provision that sought to increase the minimum wage for tipped workers so it would match the standard minimum wage in 2024. The current minimum wage for tipped workers is $3.75 an hour.

The lawmakers also altered the sick-leave law, exempting small businesses that collectively employed more than 1 million workers from a policy that initially would have applied to every company.

"The new laws, therefore, substantially amended the original laws proposed by the voters," Shapiro wrote Tuesday. "The process effectively thwarted the intent of the people and denied them the opportunity to vote on whether they preferred the voter-initiated proposal or the Legislature’s suggested modifications."

The Constitution, Shapiro added, didn't permit the Legislature "to adopt a proposed law and, in the same legislative session, substantially amend or repeal it."

Once the Legislature adopted the original proposals, it "could not amend the laws within the same legislative session," Shapiro said. He added the history and spirit of the state Constitution were violated when lawmakers went back and changed the language of the proposals.

The Michigan House approved the original minimum wage proposal on Sept. 5, 2018, in a vote of 78-28, with support from both Democrats and Republicans. During the lame duck session, on Dec. 4, 2018, it was House Republicans who supported the revised version in a 60-48 vote.

Shapiro was first appointed to the Court of Appeals by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat. Court of Appeals judges are assigned to the Court of Claims.

In 2018, then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed the amended laws. He argued they addressed “a number of difficulties for job providers” while still ensuring a minimum wage increase and sick leave benefits for many residents.

On Tuesday, Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, said his organization is strongly encouraging higher courts to halt Shapiro's ruling "during the inevitable appeals process."

"If this were to be immediately implemented, the chaos it would wreak on the already battered hospitality industry during peak travel season would be almost inconceivable," Winslow said.

Michigan employers are already facing a talent shortage, rising inflation and supply chain chaos, said Block of the state chamber.

"Employees should be equally concerned about the cost pressures this decision will place on businesses and the impact it could have on employee hours and benefits," Block said.

But Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel labeled Shapiro's ruling "a victory for the residents of Michigan whose efforts to bring an issue before their elected representatives were wrongly circumvented by the Legislature in 2018."

It's possible the Republican-controlled Legislature could appeal Shapiro's decision, which focuses on a case primarily brought by ballot committees against Nessel and the state.

The House was reviewing the ruling Tuesday afternoon, said Gideon D'Assandro, spokesman for Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell.