Cheers and jeers filled the State House on Tuesday, Sept. 19 as supporters and opponents alike packed the Garner Auditorium to voice their opinions on a bill proposing a $15 hourly minimum wage at a hearing held by the Joint Force Committee of Labor and Development.
The current minimum wage in Massachusetts is $11 an hour, and the bills in the House and Senate propose to increase the minimum wage by one dollar a year over the course of four years, reaching $15 by 2021. From then on, it would be adjusted to account for cost of living increases.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, minimum wage earners comprise about one-third of the Massachusetts workforce.
Also written into the proposal is an adjustment of the tipped minimum wage, a much lower hourly rate paid to employees such as waiters who make much of their income in tips.
While the fact that these employees make tips has been used as an argument to keep paying them an egregiously low wage, tips are not guaranteed, leaving the income of these workers dependent upon the kindness of strangers.
While the viability of this arrangement depends on tipped workers making the majority of their income in tips, under Massachusetts law, people making $20 per month in tips can be paid an hourly rate of $3.75. The bill proposes raising the hourly rate for tipped workers from $3.75 to $15 over the course of eight years.
If passed, Massachusetts will join California and Washington as the only states to have a $15 minimum wage.
The legislative panel responsible for proposing the bill was led by Rep. Daniel Donahue and Sen. Cindy Friedman, who assumed the role as lead sponsor after the death of State Sen. Kenneth Donnelly.
“It is our belief that no one who works full time in our Commonwealth should be compensated so little that they cannot make ends meet,” Donahue said.
A person on minimum wage in Massachusetts working full time currently earns under $23,000 annually. The median rent in Massachusetts is $1,164 as of 2015, leaving minimum wage workers with less than $10,000 to cover other basic needs such as food, clothes, utilities, car payments or public transportation, and school supplies.
The proposed minimum wage hike would give a pay raise to about one million Massachusetts workers.
Angela Santiago, who worked closely with lawmakers to outline the proposal, testified on behalf of Raise Up Massachusetts, a grassroots coalition of community organizers, religious groups and labor unions.
“This is not a living wage; it is a poverty wage,” Santiago said. “Passing this bill means that 932,000 low-wage workers will get a wage increase, Raising the minimum wage is not an unsubstantiated request. It is a proving necessity.”
However, many smaller businesses say they are struggling to absorb the cost of the increase to $11 an hour, which went into effect in January 2017. It was the final increase from the 2013 minimum wage bill.
According to Jon Hurst, president of lobbyist group the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, retailers would struggle with this wage increase. On top of health care, energy costs and completion internet sales, retailers have to pay time and a half on Sundays, Hurst said.
“If we go to $15, it’s not $15, it’s $22.50. There will not be a retailer open on Sundays,” Hurst testified. “The biggest sales per hour per week of the entire week happens on Sundays, and they won’t be open, period.”
If the legislature does not act, the wage increase will be put on the ballot for the 2018 election. In preparation, Raise Up Massachusetts has already begun collecting signatures to ensure the measure is placed on the ballot.