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Lawsuit claims Gov. Scott Walker's administration skirted law on wages
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Lawsuit claims Gov. Scott Walker's administration skirted law on wages

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An advocacy group on Monday filed a lawsuit against state officials it says improperly brushed off nearly 100 Wisconsin workers’ complaints about low wages that left them lacking basic necessities such as adequate food, shelter and medical care.

The state Department of Workforce Development on Oct. 6 rejected the certified complaints submitted for the workers by Wisconsin Jobs Now under a state law that calls for officials to study the possible effects of raising wages if employers aren’t paying a “living wage.”

The Wisconsin Jobs Now lawsuit says the department has produced no proof that it investigated the complaints, as state law requires, before rejecting them.

“Gov. Walker does not get to pick and choose which laws to follow,” said Peter Rickman of Wisconsin Jobs Now. “Wisconsin law clearly states that the minimum wage should be no less than a living wage, and underpaid workers deserve full consideration of the merits of their complaint as the law requires.”

Walker dismissed the lawsuit as nothing more than a “raw, cheap political stunt.”

“If they were serious about this, they would have done it six months or a year ago,” Walker said during a campaign stop in Middleton. “The fact it’s being done now is nothing more than to augment the Washington, D.C., money being spent on attack ads to try and drive this issue up.”

Wisconsin Jobs Now’s Raise WI campaign is pushing for an increase in the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

The minimum wage is an area where Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke sharply disagree as they head into the final week of a too-close-to-call election .

Walker has questioned the need for any floor on wage rates, while Burke favors an eventual increase to $10.10 an hour.

Walker has said a higher minimum wage would force employers to cut jobs. However, 13 states that raised their minimum wages at the start of 2014 saw equal or better job growth than other states, according to a study by the UW-Madison Center on Wisconsin Strategy and the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. The groups advocate for liberal economic policies.

Wisconsin law requires DWD to respond to a living wage complaint with an investigation and a determination within 20 days on whether any worker’s wage is insufficient to maintain their welfare. The law allows the state to consider an increase in the living wage’s effect on the state’s economy.

When Wisconsin Jobs Now requested under the state open records law all documents related to the department’s investigation and deliberation, DWD produced only a brief report from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association lobbying group and a one-page letter from a legislator, the lawsuit said.

Workforce Development reviewed the complaints and the law, department spokesman John Dipko said.

Most complaints listed pay greater than the minimum wage, and some noted other income and “items that go beyond basic necessities,” Dipko said, but he didn’t respond to a request for documentation of the investigation, or for the reasoning that led to the conclusion that each of the 99 individuals was paid enough to maintain their welfare, which the law describes as “reasonable comfort, reasonable physical well-being, decency, and moral well-being.

If the department finds that the welfare of any employee is not being maintained, the law calls for a wage council to consider changing the minimum wage for everyone who does that kind of work.

— The Associated Press

contributed to this report.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.

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