National History of the Minimum Wage

Introduction to the minimum wage history project timeline.

$15 Minimum Wage Comes to Seattle

Seattle city council passes a $15 minimum wage ordinance. The ordinance will phase in the $15 minimum wage over the next 10 years and will eventually cover all workers in the city.

Sea-Tac Passes $15 Mininum Wage

Sea-Tac passes minimum wage.

Pre- FLSA Minimum Wage Statutes

Three distinct models for minimum wage were established and adopted by States. The ‘Massachusetts Model’ (1912) was the first of these and had 6 distinct features: (1) a commission to administer the program, (2) conferences to recommend appropriate wage rates to the commision, (3) the principle for minimum wage determination to be a sum that is adequate to supply the necessary cost of living and maintain the worker in heath, (4) consideration of the financial condition of the industry or occupation involved, (5) enforcement through public opinion rather than direct legal sanction, and (6) protection of only women and children. (Nordlund, 11) This was reflective of the caution used by legislators to not stir up trouble and make the bill defendable in court. Later legislation included the ‘Oregon Program’ and the ‘Utah Model.’ The Oregon model included only the minimum wage criterion and had mandatory enforcement procedures. The third model (Utah) pioneered the rate structure of the Free Labor Standards Act passed decades later. Only women and children were covered under most minimum wage laws passed. Only the Massachusetts model survived the Supreme Court’s 1923 Childrens Hospital v. Adkins decision due to it’s “voluntary” form of enforcement. However, all three models were instrumental in the furthering of minimum wage nationwide.

Free Labor Standards Act

Established the first official national minimum wage. This covered male and female workers. In addition to the establishment of a minimum wage it set a forty hour work week, ended “oppressive child labor,” and guaranteed time and a half for overtime worked. It also established the Wage and Hour Division in the Department of Labor along with an administrator who was to appoint industry committees. These committees were charged with establishing a whole spectrum of of minimum wage rates for different industries. The FLSA regulations initially did not cover all forms of labor. Agricultural workers, executives, administrators and professional employees were all initially exempt along with substandard or learning workers, among others. The original wage was set at $.40 per hour (originally $.25, but set to rise to full amount by 1945) for a forty hour work week. But this proved to be unnecessary as industry committees were so effective that wage rates almost universally rose above the set minimum before 1945. Only interstate commercial industries were covered and intrastate labor regulation was left to state governments.

1949 Free Labor Standards Act Amendments

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1961 Free Labor Standards Act Amendments

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1966 Free Labor Standards Act Amendments

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The Piper Bill

In 1913, the Washington State Legislature passed the first state minimum wage law. The Piper Bill, modeled after Oregon’s minimum wage law, was designed to protect women and children’s health and safety in maintaining safe working conditions and reasonable pay rates. Women and children were believed to be in need of protecting, there was a common fear that without a stable income of safe working conditions women would turn to prostitution in order to support themselves and their families. The Piper Bill, or House Bill 59, established the Washington Industrial Welfare Commission, a body created to establish what constituted reasonable wages, hours, and working conditions for women and children. While the bill mandated that wages had to be adequate enough to supply people with the necessary cost of living and maintaining health, but it was up to the Welfare Commission to determine the level of wages needed to do so.

West Coast Hotel Co. v Parrish

In 1937, Elsie Parrish brought a suit against the West Coast Hotel Company, based in Wenatchee, Washington to recover differences between wages paid by the hotel and minimum wages mandated by the Industrial Welfare Commission. The case was eventually brought to the Supreme Court of the United States. In question was whether the minimum wage law (the Piper Bill) violated the “liberty contract: under the 5th amendment and applied by the 14th amendment of the constitution. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court held that the establishment of a minimum wage for women and children was constitution. The majority decision outlined that the constitution does not protect or mention the freedom of contract. Furthermore, the court noted that employers and employees are not equally “free” in negotiating contracts as employees are constrained by economic realities. Finally, the decision mandated that the legislator has a role in deciding on fair working standards and labor practices. This decision overruled the court decision in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923) that minimum wage laws were invalid under the 5th amendment to the constitution.

Initiative 688

In 1988, the Washington state minimum wage was indexed to inflation by state ballot measure. Initiative 688, or the Paycheck Protection Act, proposed a two-step increase in the minimum wage over two years, after-which the state minimum wage would be adjusted annually to reflect changing rates of inflation. Initiative 688 grew out of an earlier effort to pass Senate Bill 6577 that regardless of support by Governor Locke and labor unions was unable to pass through the legislature. The passing of Initiative 688 by ballot measure is an example of individuals in Washington mobilizing to protect their own rights when the state legislature is unable to do so, much like in the case of the battle for the $15 minimum wage in Seattle. Initiative 688 first increased minimum wage to $5.70/hour on January 1, 1999 and to then $6.50/hour on January 1, 2000. Since 2000, the state minimum wage has been adjusted annually to the rate of inflation. The initiative was created as a key step in bringing low-income workers into the middle class. Prior to the passing of the initiative, the state minimum wage of $4.90 (below the federal minimum wage of $5.15) still applied to restaurant workers and those who jobs did not involved interstate commerce. At $4.90/hour a full-time worker earned 30% below the poverty threshold for a family of four and 15% below the poverty threshold for a family of 4. In response, Initiative 688 based the state minimum wage on the Consumer Price Index of an urban clerical worker.

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