Metro

Mass. workers would benefit greatly from grand bargain

Hundreds of people rallied inside the State House for paid leave and a $15 minimum wage on May 8.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Hundreds of people rallied inside the State House for paid leave and a $15 minimum wage on May 8.

Lawmakers, liberal activists, and business groups are moving quickly toward a grand bargain that aims to reshape the workplace for millions of Massachusetts residents and avoid a bitter electoral showdown over three ballot questions this November, according to several people familiar with the effort.

The compromise as it stood Tuesday, those people said, would incrementally raise the minimum wage, from $11 to $15 per hour over five years, while at the same time incrementally eliminating time-and-a-half pay on Sundays and holidays. It would also, over time, increase the minimum cash wage that must be paid to tipped employees, such as waitstaff.

The deal would, in the coming years, create a program to provide paid family and medical leave to Massachusetts workers, with most employees eligible for up to 12 weeks of family leave and 20 weeks of medical leave.

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And it would institute a permanent sales tax holiday weekend once a year, while leaving the state sales tax at its current 6.25 percent the rest of the time.

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Activists and business leaders who have been pressing ballot questions to raise the minimum wage, mandate paid family and medical leave, and slice the sales tax are engaged in discussions with legislative leaders , those people said.

To be sure, the negotiations could still fall apart, which could lead activists to bring the issues before voters this fall. But, if all goes according to plan, the bargain is set to be enacted by the Legislature this week and signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker before the July 3 deadline for advocates to submit the final round of signatures to get questions on the November ballot.

Movement on the deal Tuesday came a day after the state’s highest court struck down a ballot question that would have raised the state income tax on the highest earners and put that money into transportation and education. That effort was strongly backed by progressive groups, most legislators, and, according to public polls, a strong majority of Massachusetts voters.

The pending compromise to keep the questions off the ballot could be seen as a major victory for both liberals and union activists as well as the business community. It would also spare those groups — and the public — from what could be grueling and expensive campaigns for and against ballot questions.

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Without a legislative compromise, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts has sufficient signatures to move forward with a question that would ask voters this fall to pare the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent.

That tax cut could lower state tax collections by $1 billion or more and force significant budget cuts that would be opposed by many left-leaning advocates.

Raise Up Massachusetts — a coalition of labor, faith, and community groups — has sufficient signatures for ballot questions that would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour without any change in Sunday and holiday time-and-a-half pay and would mandate a more generous paid family and medical leave program than the pending compro-mise.

If it went before voters, the group’s minimum wage ballot question would also tie future increases to the consumer price index — something that the pending legislative compromise would not do. And the ballot question would raise the minimum wage for tipped employees more than the compromise would.

On Tuesday, the in-depth specifics of the paid family leave compromise were unclear.

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In a statement, the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition did not address the details of a possible grand bargain.

But the group said, “For hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts workers, the only time they get a raise is when the minimum wage goes up. More than a million of our fellow residents can’t afford to take time off when faced with a family medical emergency.”

The group’s statement continued: “Our goal is to win lasting change for these families. The work of thousands of volunteers has brought us to this point, but we are not done yet.”

Jon B. Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, declined to comment Tuesday on the particulars of any potential bargain or the timing of when such a compromise might be enacted by the Legislature.

But he took a conciliatory tone, trumpeting the benefits of negotiation.

“Although we have the green light to file our 22,000 certified signatures, we are hopeful and at the table and believe that a balanced legislative solution is the best solution for all,” he told the Globe.

“I’m not going to deny the fact that a lot of small businesses out there are fearful and angry over a potential $15-per-hour minimum wage and a new paid leave mandate, but we have to look at the reality of what we might be able to do through a compromise instead of what would occur through a ballot initiative,” he said.

“If any of these three go to the ballot, they are going to pass. You don’t reach compromises on the ballot. You reach compromise through the legislative process.”

Spokesmen for Senate President Harriette L. Chandler and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday evening.

Baker has expressed a preference for a legislative solution instead of seeing the three questions go to the ballot. A Baker aide said the administration looks forward to reviewing any legislation that makes it to the governor’s desk.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.