Massachusetts legislators are considering a substantial increase in the state minimum wage for the first time in four years, setting up a showdown between advocates backing low-wage earners and business activists, both still struggling from the slow economy.
"It's long overdue,'' said state Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Democrat from Taunton who sponsored the bill in the Senate.
The bill would gradually raise the minimum wage from $8 to $11 an hour by 2015 and then adjust it for inflation. The minimum wage for tipped employees such as waiters would jump from $2.63 to $6.30, according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.
While the state has one of the highest minimum wages in the country, the issue has gained steam recently, with advocates and opponents saying that passage of the bill is likely, in one form or another.
More than 60 lawmakers have signed a petition calling for passage of the bill, which they said would help 580,000 low-income earners keep pace with the cost of living.
A public hearing is set for Tuesday before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, with testimony expected from business representatives, residents, and lawmakers, including Senate President Therese Murray, who has championed the need for higher living wages for struggling families in recent weeks.
Governor Deval Patrick, who has backed President Obama's proposal to raise the federal minimum wage, has signaled support for a state increase. His labor and workforce secretary, Joanne F. Goldstein, will speak on the administration's behalf Tuesday and "encourage an open and respectful dialogue among all stakeholders to determine the fair and appropriate increase," said her spokeswoman, Lauren Jones.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who met Monday with Murray and Patrick for about 30 minutes, said he has not spoken to lawmakers about the prospects for raising the minimum wage this session.
"I'd just as soon wait until we have the hearing process," he told reporters. "I think we ought to hear, number one, the requests and what effects it may have on the economy of the state, and then we'll decide accordingly."
While the bill is drawing strong support, some lawmakers say they worry about increasing the minimum wage while the economy remains shaky. "Our state needs robust job growth to recover from the recession and generate revenue to avoid chronic structural deficits," said Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr, Republican of Gloucester. "Increasing labor costs seems directly at odds with helping employers hire and retain more people.''
Under the bill, the minimum wage would increase to $9 an hour and an additional dollar each year until 2015. Then it would rise automatically to keep pace with inflation.
The bill comes amid a contentious national debate over the soft economy, stagnating earnings, and reports that highlight strains on low-wage families. Minnesota and Connecticut have recently debated an increase, and Obama has called for boosting the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.
"There are a number of my colleagues in the Senate who have heard from their constituents about the need for a minimum wage increase,'' said Pacheco.
Hard lines are being drawn as union, community, and immigration activists rally their troops and as businesses buckle down to defend their positions. While some small businesses support a higher minimum wage, major opposition will come from the retail and restaurant industries, which say the increases are too costly.
Peter G. Christie, chief executive of the restaurant association, said that while the bill has a "strong possibility" of passing, he would rather see gradual increases with smaller amounts such as 25 cents per hour over a few years.
He contends that restaurants from tony hotels to mom-and-pop clam shacks already pay higher wages and taxes than in many other states. In Massachusetts, tipped employees are guaranteed minimum wage, Christie said. Employers must ensure that the cash wage paid and the tips they claim equal minimum wage. The cash wage currently must be at least $2.63 and servers earn on average $13.31 in Massachusetts, he said. Under the bill, the minimum cash wage for servers would be $6.30 in the first year, or 70 percent of $9.
Christie said higher wages would strain restaurants, and he argues that most minimum-wage earners in his business are teenagers and part-timers who are not the primary breadwinners in their families.
"When you raise the minimum wage, you are hurting the people you are trying to help the most,'' Christie said. ". . . Everyone is concerned about people making a living wage. But here's my question: What do you have to pay minimally for a high school kid to have a part-time job?''
The Retailers Association of Massachusetts, a group of 3,500 businesses also opposing the measure, said it would make the Bay State "the highest wage state" in the nation and that many small employers cannot afford the increase.
Massachusetts retailers, facing competition from online companies and businesses in nearby states, contend with Blue Laws that impose special requirements on retailers that open Sundays, said Jon Hurst, president of the association.
Most retailers must pay hourly workers time-and-a-half on Sundays, which Hurst said is unique to Massachusetts.
"This antiquated and discriminatory requirement has now become a very big impediment to wage increases for the retailer sector in Massachusetts,'' said Hurst, who will testify Tuesday.
The bill's backers said an increase would affect workers earning up to $12 an hour, most of them adults with children to feed. A full-time worker at minimum wage earns $16,000 a year, and most must take a second job or depend on government subsidies to get by, they add.
"Should someone who works 40 hours a week be in that situation?'' said Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral, the bill's House sponsor. "They should be able to feed their families without relying on public assistance."
The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group, says poverty level for an individual in the state is $11,484; it is about $22,800 for a family of four.
Lew Finfer, an organizer of a group pushing the measure, said many teenagers who work, particularly those in poor communities, are contributing to their families' budgets.
Patricia Federico, who works for $8.50 an hour at a part-time job in Weymouth, said she barely takes home enough to cover necessities.
"The cost of living is going up, and the minimum wage has not,'' said Federico, 40, who plans to testify Tuesday. "It's hard enough to get by paying your bills. But what's worse is that it is hard to survive."
Material from State House News Service was used in this report. Meghan Irons can be reached at email@example.com.