Wages, Taxes, Benefits On Agenda For Powerful Worker Coalition

In Fair Share Amendment, Fight for $15, News, Paid Leave by News Desk

State House News Service:

The coalition that successfully fought to pass an earned sick time law and a higher minimum wage in Massachusetts laid out its sweeping agenda for the new legislative session on Tuesday, calling for a “bottom-up” campaign in support of another wage floor increase, paid family and medical leave and a surtax on incomes over $1 million.

Members of the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition pitched their priority issues as matters of economic fairness during a briefing held at the Massachusetts Teachers Association offices on Beacon Hill.

Speaking in support of paid family and medical leave legislation, Fairhaven resident Christine Lavault recalled being unable to miss work to care for her husband with lung cancer, who did not have health insurance.

“If other people have sick family members, I’m sure that you’d like to be home taking care of your family member,” Lavault said. “He only had six months to live, and it broke my heart to watch him suffer like he did, and if I had paid family leave, I could have been by his side.”

Bills sponsored by Rep. Ken Gordon and Sen. Karen Spilka (HD 2573, SD 1768) would create paid leave programs for Massachusetts workers recovering from serious illness or injury and caring for a new child or a family member with serious illness or injury. Benefits would be funded through employer premium contributions to a new Family and Employment Security Trust Fund or to private insurance plans, according to Raise Up.

The coalition also backs legislation (HD 2719, SD 984) that would raise the state’s minimum hourly wage to $15 by 2021 and boost the minimum wage for tipped workers over eight years. The Massachusetts minimum wage rose to $11 an hour at the start of this year, and the tipped minimum wage is currently $3.75 an hour. No further increases in the minimum wage are scheduled under current state law.

“Fifteen dollars an hour is going to be setting the stage for a living wage, something where we can see our working families have the ability to provide for themselves,” said Rep. Dan Donahue of Worcester, who is sponsoring the bill with Arlington Sen. Ken Donnelly.

Noah Berger, the president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said the economy becomes more productive every year but wages stopped growing with productivity in the mid-1970s, in what he described as a “long-term problematic trend.” He said if the minimum wage had continued to keep keep pace with productivity, it would now be $21 an hour.

Efforts to wage the minimum wage in Massachusetts have met pushback from the business community, which argues that higher compensation costs will make it more expensive to run a business and could result in higher consumer prices.

In recent Associated Industries of Massachusetts surveys, one employer wrote that each dollar increase in the wage floor costs their company $1.5 million per year, while another said a $15 minimum wage would lead them to “immediately terminate many unskilled positions and use temps.”

AIM executive vice president Christopher Geehern wrote in a blog post discussing the surveys that his group “believes that raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, while emotionally appealing and politically expedient, is an ineffective way to address income inequality.”

Sen. Julian Cyr, a freshman Democrat from Truro who supports a higher minimum wage, said he has talked to small business owners in his district and believes the bill’s “predictable increase” over a period of multiple years was a good approach.

“The Cape and Islands, we are actually a profoundly unaffordable place,” Cyr told the News Service. “Our housing costs are so high, and for many of my friends who are small business owners, they’re already paying many of their workers $15 an hour in our communities, so this is really something I think if we give small businesses and give businesses a head’s up of what’s coming, people can plan for that.”

The Raise Up Massachusetts Coalition backs a constitutional amendment intended to generate more funding for education and transportation by instituting a 4 percent tax on incomes over $1 million.

After a favorable vote in the Legislature last year, the measure needs another this session to be placed on the ballot for 2018.

Citing a need for more money to improve roads, bridges and transit, Josh Ostroff of Transportation for Massachusetts said one of the main tasks ahead for supporters of the surtax would be to “persuade leadership why this is important.”

“This is kind of a bottom-up effort,” Ostroff said. “If we had the kind of leadership that would produce these solutions, we’d all be having coffee someplace else.”

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By Katie Lannan

01/31/2017