By ANNA GRONEWOLD
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - When Nebraska lawmakers debate whether to allow student workers to be paid a lower minimum wage, much of the talk is about how learning a work ethic is more important for teenagers than the actual money they’re paid.
Sawsan Elias, a high school senior in Lincoln, is all for learning the value of work, but with both of her parents disabled, she’s also keenly aware of the importance of money as she saves for college.
“When my parents were working, I didn’t have to work,” said Elias, who until recently worked five hours each weeknight night as a janitor. “But there’s nobody to give you money.”
So far, that argument hasn’t persuaded legislators, who have twice voted by wide margins for a bill proposed by Sen. Laura Ebke, of Crete. If approved a final time, the bill would set a minimum wage at $8 an hour for high school students younger than 18, even after Nebraska’s minimum increases to $9 in 2016 thanks to a voter-approved initiative.
If Congress increased the federal minimum wage, Nebraska students would be paid 85 percent of that amount if doing so would result in a raise.
The first two votes have shown a divide between lawmakers, including many from rural districts who view part-time jobs as career starters and others representing low-income urban districts who see young residents forced to provide food for their families.
Elias quit working to focus on graduation in her final weeks of high school, but after getting a diploma she’ll find another job. Choose education over money, she said, is a short-term luxury.
Joslyn Schiebur, a high school junior in Adams, isn’t working to support her family, but she spends at least 10 hours a week working at Adams Super Foods on Main Street. Besides swimming, running track and holding a 3.7 GPA, Schiebur said she needs to work to save for college, where she wants to study physical therapy.
“I think our minimum wage should be raised, just because high school students are saving up money for college,” she said. “I’ll need it in the future.”
In debate about the bill, lawmakers have discussed the difficulty that small businesses will face in paying a higher minimum wage. Those arguments arose repeatedly in previous years when the Legislature rejected minimum wage increases, and they remain after voters overwhelmingly approved the higher pay.
Mike Brown, who owns Adams Super Foods, said the lower pay for students makes sense for small business owners who can only afford to hire a few employees. If the minimum wage is $9, Brown said he’ll hire workers who “can do it all,” including tasks like selling alcohol and tobacco that are off-limits to minor employees.
“It is tough out there. It is absolutely tough,” Brown said. “But it’s an awful lot of money to pay a 15 year old that can’t do everything a 19 or 20 year old or middle-aged person could do.”
Sen. Merv Riepe, of Omaha, supports the lower student wage but acknowledged views on the issue are shaped by personal experiences. Riepe notes he had the financial ability to encourage his son to take lower-paying internships, which paid off in valuable career experience.
“I wanted it to be an opportunity for kids to get jobs,” he said. “I’m not trying to blow apart the minimum wage increase.”
Sen. Adam Morfeld, of Lincoln, has spoken out strongly against the bill and thinks there could be enough opposition to mount a filibuster that would kill the proposal. He calls it a one-size-fits-all approach that caters to the needs in rural Nebraska but that would unfairly create age inequalities unrelated to job performance.
“If we’re concerned about the vitality of rural Nebraska, we shouldn’t be paying people less,” Morfeld said.