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Brainerd area residents speak out on living wage jobs

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The Minnesota House Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs on Monday heard Brainerd area residents sound off on Minnesota’s economy and what should be done to attract good-paying jobs.

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Comments from the group of 20 business people, labor supporters and other interested parties centered around early childhood education and unsuccessful legislative attempts to raise the minimum wage.

The committee met at the Brainerd Workforce Center at the Crow Wing County Community Services Building on Laurel Street.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, and chair of the select committee, was author of the House bill to raise the minimum wage. In his opening presentation he maintained low-wage workers were likely to spend most of a minimum wage increase locally and rapidly.

Mark Ronnei, general manager of Grand View Lodge, urged lawmakers to be become knowledgeable on the issue and to be careful of the actions they take. He said the reality is that many people in service jobs receive tips and that should be taken into account as the Legislature considers raising the minimum wage.

“Don’t have us end up with unintended consequences,” he said.

Having employed many 16- and 17-year-old workers, Ronnei said his business has served as an introduction to the work world for many young people and has schooled them in basic workplace requirements.

“I’m teaching them how to work,” he said.

Rep. JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury, noted the positive aspect of a minimum wage increase.

“If people have a little bit more money in their pocket, they spend it,” she said. “It’s very complicated and we’re not going to come up with a simple answer.”

Winkler responded to Ronnei’s concern about tips and the minimum wage by saying that possible compromise on tips was in the mix in his legislation.

“As the bill’s author, I’m open to any reasonable accommodation,” Winkler said.

Mike Brusseau, co-owner of Rafferty’s Pizza Restaurant, said an increase in the minimum wage could cost him $35,000 a year.

“Where am I going to come up with that money?” he asked. “I can work 80 hours a week instead of 60.”

Wayne Fleischhacker of the East Central Labor Council said there was considerable support for a petition his union had initiated, calling for a hike in the minimum wage.

“Please raise the minimum wage,” he said.

The select committee, which is charged to report back to the 2014 Legislature, includes four Democrats and three Republicans. Attending Monday’s session were Winkler, Ward and Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby. Also attending was Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter. Radinovich said the panel has met in St. Paul, Duluth, Hibbing and Albert Lea.

Rep. John Ward noted that Brainerd has consistently ranked as the city with highest unemployment rate among cities of 10,000 or more.

“We’re trying to get that to move the other way,” he said.

Radinovich emphasized the importance of early childhood education and the return on investment that society receives for such programs. He also addressed cuts that school districts such as the Crosby-Ironton School District have had to make in recent years. He also noted the high number of children who qualify for free or reduced price lunches in the Crosby-Ironton and Aitkin school districts.

Ronnei also said more flexibility is needed in school curriculum. He also criticized an “eastern, elitist mentality that says they (area graduates) have to leave to get a job.”

Al Doty, a staff person for Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., said Central Lakes College recently received a $84,000 grant for its Small Business Development Center that should work well with the Bridges Academy program that aims to link young people with high-paying jobs that are available in the area.

Emily Swarthout, human resource director for Madden’s on Gull Lake, said the resort often has to recruit out of state to fill jobs for dishwashers, cooks and housekeepers.

Mark Innes, general manager of Rapid River Lodge and Water Park, noted that Brainerd’s paper plant is gone.

“Good jobs aren’t coming into Minnesota,” he said. “They’re leaving Minnesota.”

MIKE O’ROURKE, associate editor, may be reached at 855-5860 or mike.orourke@brainerddispatch.com. He may be followed at www.twitter.com/MikeORourkenews.

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Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860
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