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Warren pushes minimum wage hike in Boston visit

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois  listened as Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget Policy Center, spoke during a minimum wage roundtable discussion at a Beloco location on Congress Street.

Stephan Savoia/AP

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois listened as Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget Policy Center, spoke during a minimum wage roundtable discussion at a Boloco location on Congress Street.

With the clatter of burrito preparation in the background, Senator Elizabeth Warren, joined by a top US Senate Democrat, pushed Monday for a hike in the minimum wage, emphasizing that the effort is supported by businesses, not just workers.

At a Boloco location on Congress Street not far from South Station, Warren and Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois held a discussion with a cross-section of business leaders and low-wage earners.

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“Nobody who works full time should live in poverty,” Warren said.

John Pepper, Boloco’s cofounder and former chief executive, said paying employees more than the minimum wage is “a no-brainer.” He said the hourly wage floor for workers in the company is $9 per hour. That is higher than the Massachusetts hourly minimum of $8 and the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Pepper said he is a strong advocate of boosting those levels, but was not always of that opinion.

“It took me a while to actually agree that the government and the states should be the ones increasing the floor,” he said. “Today, I can’t support it enough.”

Warren lauded Pepper, saying that he built his business with workers who got paid a living wage.

“He was going to be there for his workers, and he knew that if he did that, his workers would be there for him, and they would be there for the burritos,” she said.

Boloco, a privately held company, has 22 locations, 16 of which are in Massachusetts.

The push to boost the minimum wage from its current federal level has grown in intensity as the strain of economic populism, notably promulgated by Warren during her 2012 campaign, has become ascendant in the Democratic Party.

President Obama, in his January State of the Union speech, called for Congress to pass legislation boosting the federal wage floor to $10.10 per hour.

Warren said she supports the $10.10-per-hour effort, an increase that would be phased in. But it is unclear if the current political climate in Washington is conducive to such a push.

Durbin, the Senate assistant majority leader and an expert vote counter, told reporters after the event that he did not know if there is sufficient support to pass the bill in the chamber.

“We need at least five Republican senators,” Durbin explained, but said he “can’t tell” if the votes will be there.

Among the low-wage earners who spoke at the event were a man who said that despite working as a baggage handler at Logan International Airport, he still had to rely on food stamps and another who explained how hard it is to get by as a tipped worker in the restaurant industry.

Philip J. Edmunson, chairman of the board of the Alliance for Business Leadership, said at the event that many in the business community favor the government mandating a higher wage floor.

“Unlike what the stereotype is . . . many business leaders and many business organizations are in favor of increasing the minimum wage,” he said.

But not everyone in business thinks that is a good idea.

Christopher Geehern, executive vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said his organization opposes raising the minimum wage, both at the state and federal level.

He warned that an increase in minimum wages would burden employers and indicated the move could end up costing jobs

“Ultimately if the mandated pay of the job goes beyond its value, that job isn’t going to exist anymore,” he said.

The minimum wage has also been an issue at the state level in Massachusetts.

Late last year, the state Senate passed a bill that would incrementally increase it from $8 to $11 by the middle of 2016 and connect subsequent hikes to inflation.

That bill is awaiting action in the state House of Representatives. Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has called for tying a wage boost to reform of the unemployment insurance system. A wide swath of businesses in the state support changes to the system.

DeLeo has said he thinks the two items should be connected in order to help the poor and keep a positive business climate in the state.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.
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