With a strong push from Senate President Therese Murray, the Massachusetts Senate voted to increase the minimum wage from $8 an hour to $11 by 2016. Meanwhile, House Speaker Robert DeLeo plans to wait until January to consider the bill because he wants to link it to changes in the state’s unemployment insurance system. Indeed, lawmakers should be open to DeLeo’s plan to combine a wage increase with some common-sense reforms that would cut costs for businesses. But a minimum wage hike should be a priority in its own right.
The current minimum wage of $8 per hour, which has been in place since 2008, adds up to $16,704 annually. Because the value of the minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, a full-time minimum wage worker now makes $5,000 a year less than in 1968, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. The Senate bill would restore the minimum wage to the purchasing power it would have if inflation were factored in.
As the center also points out, many people wrongly associate minimum-wage work primarily with teenage workers. In fact, about 73 percent are age 20 or older. Nonetheless, the House could resolve any misperceptions by maintaining the current minimum for teen workers in purely seasonal jobs — the camp counselors and summer clam-shack workers who are still learning to be part of the workforce.
Nonetheless, many business leaders oppose the increase in its entirety. They argue it would hurt the state’s economic recovery and be particularly burdensome to small-business owners. Yet the majority of low and minimum-wage workers are employed by large companies, not by small mom-and-pop operations. And if the workers at the lowest end of the pay scale don’t earn enough money to purchase basic necessities, that hurts business in its own way — and increases demand for government assistance.
The push for a minimum wage increase also comes as needy families in Massachusetts are losing a portion of their federal food stamp benefits and face reductions in other safety-net programs, bringing federal assistance to pre-stimulus levels. With this bill, Massachusetts lawmakers have the chance to pay more than lip service to the goal of closing the gap between minimum wage and the salaries of higher-earning segments of the work force.