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$15-an-hour minimum wage eludes Mass. cities

In November, protesters chanted as they marched towards the State House during a rally for minimum-wage workers who were seeking a raise to $15 per hour in Boston.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2015

Just a few years ago, the notion of a $15 minimum hourly wage was widely dismissed as unrealistic.

But over the past 18 months, the threshold has gained impressive traction around the country, with citywide ordinances enacted in Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco, and other proposals pending in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

So why hasn’t the issue caught fire in Boston and other liberal-leaning Massachusetts communities?

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said last week that he is “not opposed” to a $15 minimum wage. Governor Charlie Baker said that while he doesn’t support a statewide hike, especially not before Massachusetts reaches a mandated $11 an hour in 2017, he believes that local authorities should do what makes sense for their communities.


But it’s not a simple undertaking for Boston, or any other municipality in the state, to move above the current state minimum of $9 an hour, which will rise to $10 on Jan. 1, and to that $11 mark a year later.

A municipality could move to increase its minimum wage, though it would then have to petition the state and get legislative approval to do so, according to the state’s office of Labor and Workforce Development. And because the attorney general does not have jurisdiction over local ordinances, it could not enforce the higher wage. The city would then have to come up with a way to enforce the wage law on its own.

To get around this hurdle, state Senator Dan Wolf, a Harwich Democrat, introduced a bill that would give municipalities the power to pass higher minimum-wage laws and to enforce them in conjunction with the attorney general. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey declined to comment on the potential complexity of enforcing different minimum wages around the state.

The bill, approved last week by the Labor and Workforce Development Committee, which Wolf cochairs, would give local authorities the ability to pay workers a wage that accounts for housing costs and other expenses in their communities, Wolf said.


“Cities and towns recognize that the cost-of-living across the Commonwealth is very different,” he said.

But allowing communities to raise their minimum wages independently will make businesses operating in higher wage jurisdictions less competitive, said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.

“We can’t have 351 different rules on pay across the Commonwealth,” he said. “We have so many cities and towns, you can’t put small businesses in one Boston suburb at a disadvantage vs. the ones right next to them.”

More than 30 cities around the country have raised their minimum wage above their state’s level in the last few years, said Paul Sonn, general counsel at the National Employment Law Project, a New York workers’ rights group. But some states prohibit municipalities from raising the minimum wage at a local level, Sonn said, and some, like Massachusetts, have complex legislation that makes it difficult to do so.

Communities statewide should have the authority to make their own decisions, said Geoffrey Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a lobbying group representing cities and towns. Actions like the 21-year-old minimum age for tobacco purchases, which started in Needham and has been adopted by other communities and is now being considered by state lawmakers, for example, can create trajectories for wider change, he said.


But without clear legal authority to mandate wages, cities could open themselves up to lawsuits from companies that don’t want to pay higher wages, Beckwith said: “It’s really inviting a significant amount of costly litigation to go down that path.”

In certain industries, such as fast-food restaurants in New York State, workers have found some success in reaching $15 an hour. But citywide mandates can be trickier.

As of yet, no Massachusetts municipality has thoroughly tested the waters. A graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst gathered enough signatures last year to have Amherst town officials consider a $15 minimum wage, but they voted it down.

In Cambridge, where city employees and contractors are paid at least $14.95 an hour, the City Council has been pushing for a $15 minimum wage for all workers, public and private. But city solicitor Nancy Glowa ruled last year that Cambridge did not appear to have the power to enact a minimum-wage ordinance, so several council members are exploring alternative ways to do so.

One possibility, said councilor Nadeem Mazen, would be to require businesses to obtain an annual operating permit from the city that includes a requirement that they pay workers at least $15 an hour.

If cities act on their own to raise wages, it will force the state to consider doing the same, Mazen said: “Putting pressure on the state is the responsibility of cities.”

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who is poised to be the next council president, said Boston might also consider linking permits and wages. And if the city enacts its own minimum wage, she is in favor of aiming high.


“I very strongly support a $15 minimum wage,” said Wu, who stood with airport workers who went on a 24-hour hunger strike last week to advocate for higher pay.

Fellow Boston City Councilor Timothy McCarthy, who participated in the hunger strike, said the city should proceed carefully on a $15 minimum wage.

“You run the risk of hurting small businesses, really small businesses like a deli for instance,” he said. “If a small deli started paying everybody behind the line $15 an hour, you’d be paying $12 for an Italian.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.