State minimum wage rises to $11, activists keep sights set on $15

In Fight for $15, News by News Desk

Bay State Banner:

On Sunday, the state minimum wage rose to $11 per hour, completing the last phase of 2014 legislation that lifted the lowest pay levels. But while marking it a victory, activists are far from satisfied. Before the month is up they plan to file a bill to pick up where this past legislation left off, gradually increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, after which it would be indexed to inflation.

“[Minimum wage] goes up to $11, which will be amazing,” Calvin Feliciano, deputy political director with SEIU 509, told the Banner in a phone interview. But, he added the movement cannot stop there. “For the people who are going to make $11 in few weeks, it [is a matter of], ‘Don’t make us wait two years to show you how broke we are and how little we can survive.’”

According to a 2014 Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center report, approximately 20 percent of wage earners statewide will experience a pay boost this January. That figure includes nearly 500,000 minimum wage workers, as well as another group of 132,700 workers currently earning slightly above minimum wage. MassBudget expects employers will increase the latter group’s pay in response to the rising minimum.

But “minimum wage” and “living wage” are two different things. In Boston, the amount one would have to earn to afford just the basic necessities — that’s the “living wage” — is $26.74 per hour for a single adult with one child, assuming she or he works full time year-round, according to research by Amy Glasmeier, MIT professor of economic geography and regional planning. For two working adults with one child, each adult would have to earn $19.64 per hour to survive in Boston without relying on public support programs.

Continuing on to $15

Raise Up Massachusetts is the coalition that advocated for the 2014 minimum wage legislation and remains active in calling for increasing it to $15. The group plans to introduce legislation this January that would raise the minimum by $1 per year, until it hits $15. In addition, one of the bill’s provisions would increase the sub-minimum wage paid to tipped workers, Feliciano said.

Feliciano and Harris Gruman, director of the SEIU State Council, spoke separately to the Banner. Both stated that there are multiple willing candidates to act as the bill’s lead sponsor in both House and Senate, and that activists are deliberating over the most strategic choices. Despite this backing, they consider it unlikely that a $15 minimum wage bill can secure sufficient legislative votes to prevent a veto. That almost certainly will be Governor Charlie Baker’s response, Feliciano said, citing the governor’s lack of support for the 2014 bill.

“If we pass something, I’m sure [Baker] vetoes it. He was against the minimum wage we have now,” Feliciano said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who will co-sponsor upcoming $15 minimum wage bill, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that it will pass next session. Eldridge noted that many senators view it favorably, and that House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he would debate the measure in the new session.

“I see very strong support amongst my colleagues and I’m hoping we can pass the bill this coming session,” Eldridge told the Banner. “Although we’re in many ways a progressive state, we are also sadly, disgracefully leading the country in income inequality — the gap between the richest and the rest of us.”

The governor’s stance, however, remains unclear, Eldridge said, noting that Baker has not been a vocal advocate of raising wages.

Bill proponents will use coming months to broaden public consciousness of the measure and make their case to legislators via measures such as hearings, letters and calls to elected officials and actions at the State House, Feliciano said.

Should the bill not pass next session, advocates will move to take it to statewide ballot, where many say they expect it to pass. The measure has more support with the public than among politicians, Feliciano said.

Another possibility is that the state Legislature will follow the precedent set by the 2014 measure: passing a bill only when the initiative gathers enough signatures to qualify for placement on the ballot, Gruman said.

Counterarguments

Gruman said a $15 minimum is very feasible for Massachusetts, and noted that California and New York will phase in such a measure.

“If they can go to $15, we can go to $15 even more easily because we’re a much wealthier state than they are, per capita. If Massachusetts were a nation, we’d still be the fourth richest state in the world,” Gruman said.

While opponents have raised concerns that increasing the minimum wage will cause some people on the edge of eligibility to lose access to public benefits they rely on — thus netting them a loss — Gruman says this argument is a red herring.

He believes the best way to address concerns over loss of benefits is to revise eligibility criteria for public support programs so they more realistically reflect the current income levels of those who need them. He also says that disruptions in eligibility should be a gradual, not sudden, process. It is a problem that will not be solved by keeping minimum wage insufficient to support people, he said, adding that public program eligibility is a problem that affects even those who make above $15.

“I’ve been working for 20 years on both issues, and they throw it in my face only when I ask to raise wages,” Gruman said.

Increases on the price of goods and services — another fear often expressed — also have not occurred outside of normal economic expectations, Feliciano said. Meanwhile, the financial burden on Boston workers continues to grow, with rents skyrocketing, he said. Without subsidies, a household of two people making $11 per hour cannot afford to rent in any Boston neighborhood, he stated.

Others have argued that increasing the minimum wage will spur companies to absorb the added costs by cutting jobs. These fears also seem disproven, Gruman said, noting that unemployment rates actually have decreased over the past five years. Feliciano said that while in some cases companies have automated jobs, this shift would be expected regardless of minimum wage changes.

“It’s not about saving a buck to [those companies.] If they can eliminate a job and do it with a computer, they’ll do it,” Feliciano said. “It’s not about $1, or even $5.”

By Jule Pattison-Gordon