If springtime is nearing, YEOW can not be far behind.
The fifth annual offensive by the Reagan administration to pass the Youth Employment Opportunity Wage act -- otherwise known as the "subminimum wage" for teen-agers -- is being prepared for Congress' return next week.
What happens when a bold and controversial approach is offered to solve a persistent problem such as youth unemployment among blacks? In this case, not much. And in the age of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-balancing law, the chances grow slimmer, insiders say.
Congress has consistently sidestepped the subminimum-wage issue, largely because it has been preoccupied with the federal budget deficit and is not prepared to spend considerable time on an inevitably lengthy and bitter wrangle over YEOW.
"It is simply a question of competing with other, bigger issues . . . . We are not giving it up," said David Demarest, the Labor Department's deputy undersecretary for public and intergovernmental affairs. Privately, however, a ranking department official said "the opposition is so strong, it's a stalemate . . . . It's probably pretty much dead."
YEOW is an idea whose time has come -- and gone -- according to critics, led by the AFL-CIO. They contend that while the Labor Department was successful in gathering increased backing for the initiative in 1985, the youth wage plan is dead because most lawmakers think that it would create few jobs, while displacing older workers because employers would hire teen-agers instead.
President Reagan has strongly supported the idea since 1981 and has said that the federal minimum wage, now $3.35 an hour, is responsible for freezing many young people out of the job market. YEOW would attempt to induce employers to hire more youths for summer jobs by lowering the minimum wage to $2.50 for youngsters age 16 to 19. The lower wage -- which Labor estimates could create 400,000 jobs a year -- would be enacted on a three-year trial basis and apply from May to September. To answer critics, YEOW backers included criminal penalties for employers who fire older workers to hire younger ones.
YEOW has never made it out of committee, but last month the YEOWists came the closest yet to moving the bill in the Senate when its prime sponsors, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), tried to attach the measure to the bill that established "flexitime" work schedules for federal employes.
But backers of flexitime, which passed, scuttled the attempt because Senate Democrats threatened a filibuster and GOP head-counters realized that they did not have the 60 votes needed to shut off debate.
The Labor Department believes it has majority support in the Republican-controlled Senate. And YEOW lobbyists have succeeded in broadening public support, winning the backing last year of the National Conference of Black Mayors, the National Puerto Rican Forum and more than 30 other youth and civic groups. But the most elusive element has been to get any Senate Democrats to break ranks and back the measure. "Nobody wants to be first," Demarest said.
The inside strategy for passing YEOW has been to sweeten the pot by making the measure part of a Reagan "youth package" that would shift funds into a youth job-training and education plan. Such an initiative would have induced Democrats to support the package, "But the problem now is Gramm-Rudman," a Republican Capitol Hill strategist said. Because of the austerity required by the budget-balancing act, "Now we've got nothing to put on the table to buy [Democratic] support with," he said.
Changes in the economy may influence the bill's chances. With overall unemployment down recently, some lawmakers may be more willing to experiment with YEOW. On the other hand, there may be increased reluctance to lower the wage because of recent reports that many low-wage employers, such as the fast-food industry, are having trouble filling jobs at $3.35 and are forced to offer higher wages.
The labor federation and others are attempting to push the minimum wage in the other direction, arguing that it has not been raised in five years, while the cost of living has gone up nearly 25 percent.
Meanwhile, while overall unemployment has dropped to its lowest level in the past five years, 7 percent, youth unemployment continues to rise: It was 15.9 percent among whites last month and 41.6 percent among blacks.