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With inflation top of mind, voters raise minimum wage in two states

Nebraskans voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Nevadans voted for an increase to $12 an hour.

Voters fill out their ballots Tuesday at a polling center at the Centennial Center in Las Vegas. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Voters approved minimum-wage increases for workers in Nebraska and Nevada, as well as for tipped workers in Washington D.C., on Tuesday, as many said that inflation was a top concern in exit polls.

Nebraskans voted to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Nevadans voted to extend a minimum-wage increase to $12 an hour to nearly all workers. Voters in D.C. overwhelmingly voted to triple the minimum wage for tipped workers to $16.10 an hour over four years.

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Generally, Americans have tended to favor raising the minimum wage on statewide ballot initiatives. The federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour, and Congress has not updated that, even as many companies have raised wages to keep and attract workers.

Local minimum-wage measures had mixed success on Tuesday. Voters in Portland, Maine, rejected a measure that would have gradually raised the minimum wage to $18 an hour by 2025. But 82 percent of voters in the Seattle suburb of Tukwila voted to raise the local minimum wage to $19 an hour by next year, one of the highest in the country.

“This victory gives me hope,” said Arc Di, 29, who expects to see a $2-an-hour raise next July. Di was recently hired at a paint store in Tukwila for $17 an hour and previously worked in the fast-food industry. “I support my partner and our kid. I was dismayed when our rent went up this year by $300.”

The minimum-wage victories come as inflation near 40-year highs has continued to strain workers’ finances this year. In an exit poll, about 3 in 10 voters said inflation was the most important issue in their vote.

D.C. voters approve higher minimum wage for tipped workers

Democrats have generally tended to embrace hiking the minimum wage. And the passage of these initiatives happened as the Democratic Party performed better than expected across the country in the midterm elections. Yet Republican voters often support raising the minimum wage, as well. Between 1996 and 2022, there have been 28 minimum-wage increase initiatives on state ballots. Only two have been voted down.

“Nebraska proves to the nation that a $15 minimum wage is not a coastal elite priority,” said Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project, which helped draft the language for the Nebraska measure. “It’s an absolute necessity everywhere.”

The ballot initiatives faced strong opposition from Republicans and small-business owners who say that raising the minimum wage eliminates jobs, drives small employers out of business, and fuels inflation through price increases to make up for higher labor costs.

“We are disappointed with its passage and the new reality that awaits our vibrant industry during a time of already challenging economic recovery,” Julie Sproesser, interim executive director of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, said in a statement after the measure increasing wages for tipped workers passed in D.C. on Tuesday. “This measure will disrupt our city’s hundreds of small and independently owned restaurants.”

Over the past 12 months, a record-hot labor market has given workers more leverage to demand higher wages from their employers, which has resulted in record wage growth. But the rising costs of food, gas and rent have wiped out gains for many households. Emboldened workers who are feeling the pinch have looked for other mechanisms to improve working conditions, such as unionization and minimum-wage increases.

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Nebraskans voted to increase the minimum wage from $9 an hour to $15 an hour in 2026, as well as to adjust the wage each year with the cost of living. More than 20 percent of the state’s workers will receive a raise in January thanks to the measure. The initiative passed with 58 percent of the vote.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, opposed the initiative, arguing that markets should determine employee wages.

In Nevada, the minimum wage will increase from $10.50 to $12 an hour by July 2024. The state will also eliminate the current tiered minimum-wage system that effectively penalized workers at companies that offer health insurance. The initiative passed with 54 percent of the vote.

On the East Coast, voters in D.C. approved a measure to raise wages for tipped workers, mostly in the restaurant industry, following months of debate on the potential impact on the city’s wait staff and restaurants. It will raise the minimum wage for tipped workers from $5.35 an hour to $16.10 by 2027.

Voters also weighed in on their collective bargaining rights in the midterms. In Illinois, residents voted to amend the state constitution to guarantee that workers have a right to organize and bargain collectively. But in a blow to labor unions, Tennessee voters approved a ballot measure prohibiting employment contracts that require union membership, enshrining that ban in their state constitution.

In Tukwila, Wash., 82 percent of voters approved the minimum wage increase going to $19 an hour by 2023, up from $14.49 an hour. Labor leaders said they are hopeful that fewer families will be pushed out of the city by rising rent prices.

“It’s becoming increasingly expensive to live here,” said Debbie Aldous, president of the Tukwila teachers union and a middle school algebra teacher. “Our schools serve a lot of refugee families. It’s important for students and families to be able to stay here and not to have to move and chase lower rents.”