Push made for state minimum wage hike

Bill Bumpus's picture

Push made for state minimum wage hike
By DAVID KIBBE, Standard-Times staff writer

Kathy Casavant, Treasurer Massachusetts AFL-CIO

BOSTON -- Labor unions and Democrats in the Legislature are launching a campaign to raise the state's minimum wage for the first time in four years, arguing that inflation is cutting into workers' pay.

Sen. Joan M. Menard, D-Fall River, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the Greater Southeastern Massachusetts Labor Council, the Coalition for Social Justice and low-wage workers from across Southeastern Massachusetts will hold a rally at 6 p.m. today at the UMass Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Center in Fall River to call for the change.

A bill filed by Sen. Marc R. Pacheco, D-Taunton, and Rep. James Marzilli, D-Arlington, would boost the minimum wage from $6.75 an hour to $7.50 an hour in 2006 and $8.25 an hour in 2007. After that, the minimum wage would be tied to inflation through the Consumer Price Index.

A study last year by the Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center, a research group that supports an increase in the minimum wage, found the purchasing value of the minimum wage had decreased 6 percent since 2001 due to inflation.

"When you look at $15,000 a year -- that's what we are talking about, and no benefits -- it's impossible for people to live on that amount of money," Sen. Menard said.

The budget and policy center said the boost would affect more than 400,000 people, or almost 14 percent of the state's work force. Sen. Menard said the rally will show how the issue touches on a broad range of employees, including nursing home and day care workers.

Senator Joan Menard welcomes everyone

A similar bill languished in the Legislature last session, but Sen. Pacheco believes it can happen this year.

"We put together a coalition this year to really start to focus on the inequity that is increasing, and the inequity that exists," Sen. Pacheco said. "Obviously, this simply does not purchase the same amount of goods and services, utilities, fuel. Everything is outpacing the wages of all of us in society."

So far, it isn't clear whether the House and Senate leadership will back a change in the minimum wage, which was essential to its passage last time.

Representatives Stephen Canessa and Patricia Haddad
speak out in favor of raising the minimum wage

Gov. Mitt Romney has called for the minimum wage to be tied to inflation, but he does not have a position on additional one-time increases in minimum pay, as Sen. Pacheco and Rep. Marzilli proposed for the next two years. The legislation would make Massachusetts the fourth state in the nation to tie increases to inflation.

"In terms of the concept of indexing the minimum wage to inflation, the governor supports it," said Gov. Romney's spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom.

Rep. Michael J. Rodrigues, D-Westport, who will hold a hearing on the bill later this year as co-chairman of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee, was open to raising the minimum wage, but disagreed with tying future increases to inflation.

"I think it's a mistake and poor public policy when we establish a future wage on an index that measures past performance," Rep. Rodrigues said.

Instead, he said legislators should look at "what we predict the market to be in the near future, where we are compared to other states in our region, other states that we compete against economically, and to give it some thought."

A number of states go beyond the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, which has been unchanged since 1997.

Massachusetts' minimum wage is tied with Rhode Island for sixth nationally, behind Washington state, which is first at $7.35 an hour, and Oregon, Alaska, Connecticut and Vermont.

Washington and Oregon tie future increases to inflation.

In Congress, Democrats and Republicans rejected the other party's proposals to increase the national minimum wage this winter. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Democrats had sought to boost the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour over a 26-month period. Republicans proposed a $1.10 boost over the next 18 months.

Business groups in Massachusetts opposed the last increase in the state's minimum wage, which passed in 1999 but went fully in effect in 2001.

The Massachusetts Restaurant Association opposed similar legislation last year to boost the state minimum wage and tie future increases to the Consumer Price Index. The association's spokesman could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Stephanie Earle of Fall River and Ericka Marote of New Bedford
testify what it is like to wprk for minimum wage

"Our economy is in a downturn and is slow to recover," the restaurant association said in a statement on the issue. "Now is no time to add inflationary wage pressures. … The best solution to minimum wage concerns is a strong, expanding marketplace that creates jobs with resulting training opportunities for less-skilled workers."

Based on past debates, Sen. Pacheco predicted the bill would be supported by businesses that pay higher than the minimum wage, and opposed by those that do not. He was a co-sponsor of the last increase.

"Those that are not doing so have always suggested that we would be losing literally hundreds of thousands of jobs as a result of increasing the base minimum wage, and that prediction has never come true," Pacheco said. "Every time the minimum wage has increased, 90, 95 percent goes right back into the economy."

This story appeared on Page A5 of The Standard-Times on March 16, 2005.

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