Though minimum wages paid to hourly workers in Massachusetts continue to rank among the best in the country, four states and the District of Columbia have leapfrogged the state since the minimum wage last increased five years ago, and proponents of increasing the wage worry that its value will continue to erode without action.
Massachusetts is considered both a high wage and high cost-of-living state, and the state’s $8 per hour minimum wage is guaranteed under state law to remain higher than the national wage.
But some advocates say that is still not enough in the Northeast, where home heating, housing prices, and necessities such as groceries can be more costly.
“These states are just way behind in where they ought to be in terms of keeping up with inflation that has eroded the real value of the minimum wage,” said state Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat and the lead sponsor of a bill to increase the minimum wage over three years to $11 an hour.
President Obama’s call this month to increase the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour brought new attention to the minimum wage.
With the current federal minimum wage only 75 cents per hour lower than the Bay State’s wage floor, Obama’s plan to reset the minimum wage also sparked questions in Massachusetts about whether the state would be better off waiting for Congress to address the issue or tackling it as a state.
Governor Deval Patrick suggested last week that raising the state’s minimum wage was not on the top of his list of priorities, but he did not rule out supporting a state increase if it landed on his desk.
Asked about Obama’s proposal and prospects of pushing a similar increase in Massachusetts, Patrick said: “I support the president.
We already have one of the highest minimum wages in state law, but I’m willing to look at that.”
Five years have elapsed since the minimum wage in Massachusetts increased in January 2008 to $8 an hour, still one of the highest wage floors in the country.
The Legislature has not voted on a minimum wage increase since 2006, when it phased in the increase over two years and overrode a veto by Governor Mitt Romney to do so.
Since then, four states, including Connecticut and Vermont and the District of Columbia have surpassed Massachusetts. Nevada requires employers to pay workers $8.25 an hour if they do not receive health benefits, but if health insurance is provided the minimum wage rate falls to $7.25.
California continues to pay workers a minimum of $8 an hour, and Washington has the highest minimum wage in the country at $9.19. Businesses in Connecticut must pay at least $8.25 an hour, and Vermont workers earn at least $8.60 an hour.
In his State of the Union address, Obama called for increasing the minimum wage to $9 an hour, up from the current rate of $7.25, and indexing the rate to inflation, something 10 other states already do.
“Let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty,” Obama said.
Massachusetts law dictates that the state’s minimum wage will automatically increase to 10 cents higher than the federal wage if that becomes higher than the state minimum.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said he did not think his organization would fight a federal increase in the minimum wage, but warned of negative consequences if Massachusetts policy makers decide to tackle the issue on their own.
“Far better that Congress deals with it and comes up with a reasonable increase that applies to 50 states than Massachusetts goes alone and puts local employers out of step with employers over the border,” Hurst said.
Hurst said retailers, who account for 20 percent of the private sector jobs in Massachusetts, are most concerned about being on a level playing field with businesses in other states.
That is not to say, however, that a federal minimum wage hike would not affect hiring, Hurst said.
“There’s no question in my mind that higher minimum wages always have an impact on hiring, particularly for younger people,” Hurst said.