The minimum wage has received just a few minutes of attention at the four Republican president debates so far, but both times it’s come up, frontrunner Ben Carson has dominated the conversation.
In the second debate on CNN in September, the retired neurosurgeon said that he was open to exploring a federal minimum wage hike and voiced support for indexing the rate to inflation so that it adjusts automatically every year—a rare position for a Republican to take. In the fourth debate on Tuesday night, Carson sang a different tune, stating outright that he would not raise the minimum wage that’s been stuck at $7.25 for nearly six years.
Despite that reversal, a constant of Carson’s minimum wage stance has been his support of a “starter” minimum wage for young job seekers. “I think we also have to have two minimum wages, a starter, and a sustaining, because how are young people ever going to get a job if you have such a high minimum wage that it makes it impractical to hire them?” he said at the September debate. And on Tuesday, in asking Carson if he supported a higher federal rate, moderator Neil Cavuto of Fox Business Network referenced Carson’s suggestion that “one minimum wage does not fit all.” Carson went on to recall how much he’d learned from his early jobs. “But I would not have gotten those jobs if someone had to pay me a large amount of money,” he said.
Voters who support this idea—and perhaps Carson himself—will be relieved to know that such a “starter” minimum wage already exists.
A minimum wage of $4.25 per hour applies to young workers under the age of 20 during their first 90 consecutive calendar days of employment with an employer, as long as their work does not displace other workers. After 90 consecutive days of employment or the employee reaches 20 years of age, whichever comes first, the employee must receive a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009.
The sub-minimum wage for teenage workers was established by the 1996 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act—the same amendment that froze the minimum wage for tipped workers at its current rate of $2.13—50% of $4.25, which was then the federal minimum wage.
That law, of course, only applies to cities and states that haven’t set their own, higher standards. But even as local governments across the country have raised their minimum wages, some have carved out their own sub-minimum wages for younger workers.
Maryland’s minimum wage law that boosted the hourly rate to $8.25 in July says that employers can get away with paying workers under under 20 years of age 85% of the state rate for the first six months of employment. Likewise in Minnesota, where the statewide minimum wage is $9 per hour at large employers, companies can pay employees younger than 20 $7.25 per hour for their first 90 days on the job.
Tsedeye Gebreselassie, senior staff attorney at the left-leaning National Employment Law Project, told Fortune that when the youth sub-minimum wage was established in 1996, the rationale behind it mirrored Carson’s argument—that it would incentivize employers to hire young workers in need of training. Gebreselassie says there’s no hard data on how often the $4.25 hour wage is paid (and the Labor Department did not respond to Fortune‘s question about it), but she says “it’s our impression that it’s not widely used” because it’s hard for employers to find anyone willing to work for $4.25 per hour. In her view, the sub-minimum wage is poor policy because it pays employees different wages for doing the very same work simply because of their age.
The details of Carson’s starter-wage proposal are not clear, but since—as of Tuesday—he’s against raising the federal minimum wage above its current rate of $7.25, one can assume his second-tier wage would be lower than that. Carson’s campaign did not respond when Fortune asked how the “starter” wage that the candidate has advocated for would differ from the one that’s already in place.