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Originally published March 16, 2014 at 4:03 PM | Page modified March 17, 2014 at 11:32 AM

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Editorial: Let companies set lower minimum wage for more teens

Employers already can pay 14- and 15-year-olds less than the state’s minimum wage. High teen unmployment suggests it may be time to extend that to 16- and 17-year-olds as well.

Seattle Times Editorial

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WASHINGTON should consider reducing the minimum wage for 16- and 17-year-olds to see whether it has any impact on the state’s sky-high teen unemployment rate.

It wouldn’t require any new legislation: The state minimum-wage act applies only to workers 18 and older. The law allows the director of the Department of Labor and Industries to establish a lower minimum for younger workers, but until now that’s only been applied to 14- and 15-year-olds. Employers can pay them $7.92 an hour, 85 percent of the adult minimum wage of $9.32.

It’s time to consider something similar for 16- and 17-year-olds. A new study from the influential Brookings Institution shows the employment rate among 16- to 19-year-olds in the Greater Seattle area plummeted from 46 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2012.

The minimum wage may not have had anything to do with that huge decline. The recession put lots of adults in competition for the entry-level jobs that historically gave teens their start. A lower minimum wage for 16- and 17-year-olds could displace older workers.

Still, a lower minimum for more teens is worth exploring. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are less likely to be supporting themselves than 18- or 19-year-olds.

The lower minimum could be limited to the first three months of a teen’s employment to guard against potential employer abuses. That’s how the federal law works now.

The goal is to give more teens valuable job experience without impacting adult employment. State officials should consider adopting a lower minimum wage for 16- and 17-year-olds, then closely monitor whether it achieves those objectives.

If it doesn’t work, then scrap it. But it’s probably worth a try.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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