Senate sends $11-per-hour minimum wage bill to House

By 
Matt Murphy, Andy Metzger and Colleen Quinn, State House News Service
Nov. 19, 2013

The Senate voted 32-7 on Tuesday to increase the state's minimum wage by $3 over the next three years to $11 an hour, approving legislation that would give Massachusetts the highest minimum wage in the country and give the state's lowest-wage workers their first raise in six years.

The bill (S 1925) would also tie future increases in the minimum wage to inflation and guarantee that no matter what happens to the federal minimum wage - currently set at $7.25 - the minimum in Massachusetts would remain 50 cents higher.

With the timetable and scope of House legislation addressing the minimum wage still uncertain, the Senate voted to amend its minimum wage bill to begin raising the wage on July 1, 2014, instead of Jan. 1, 2014. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said he would like any minimum wage bill to include reforms to the unemployment insurance system, which Senate President Therese Murray said she hoped to address separately early next year.

The three-step increase would hike the minimum wage to $9 in 2014, $10 in 2015 and $11 in 2016. The last time the Legislature voted to increase the minimum wage was in 2006 when lawmakers approved an increase to its current level of $8 an hour, phased in over two years.

While major business groups warned the wage increase could be "dangerous" for the economy and slow job growth and hiring, proponents said the value of the minimum wage has eroded over time, failing to keep pace with inflation and the high cost of living in the Northeast.

Murray said the bill, which emerged from Senate Ways and Means near the end of formal sessions in 2013, would restore the purchasing power of the minimum wage to 1968 levels.

"Every time we've raised the minimum wage, we've added jobs," Murray said, addressing the private-sector business concerns.

In addition to Republican Sens. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester), Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth) and Richard Ross (R-Wrentham), four Democrats also voted against the bill: Sen. Eileen Donoghue (D-Lowell), Sen. Richard Moore (D-Uxbridge), Sen. Kathleen O'Connor Ives (D-Newburyport) and Sen. Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport).

During the course of several hours of debate, senators beat back proposals to limit the increase to $9 and to lower the minimum wage for teenagers under 18 years old. An amendment sponsored by Rep. James Timilty (D-Walpole) that would have untied future increases in the minimum wage from the Consumer Price Index failed 10-28.

The Senate did adopted a compromise proposal offered by Sen. Dan Wolf (D-Harwich) to increase the minimum wage for tipped employees from $2.63 per hour, a level set in 1999, to half the minimum wage. The 50 percent wage for tipped employees fell between Sen. Marc Pacheco's push to go to 60 percent, and Sen. Robert Hedlund's amendment for 35 percent, which would still have been an increase.

Wolf said he does not think any companies would leave the state because of the minimum wage increase sought through the legislation.

"I think that companies are committed to be in Massachusetts for the right reasons. It's an educated workforce. It's a great environment to do business; it's a government-friendly place to do business from my experience, and I think the companies that are here and committed to be here are going to figure out how to adjust to this," said Wolf, who said he is "hopeful" the House takes up the bill and agrees to the Senate's schedule of increases.

Four other state Legislatures and voters in New Jersey have approved minimum wage hikes this year, but the $11 an hour wage would surpass California's move earlier this year to raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016, set to be the highest in the country.

Senators were not allowed to debate an amendment that dealt with tip pooling at fast food restaurants when Murray ruled the amendment beyond the scope of the minimum wage bill.

Sen. Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport) filed the amendment and has sponsored legislation that would revise the current tip law by narrowing the definition of manager (S 887). Rodrigues said he was "a little shocked" the amendment was considered beyond scope of the bill considering it would clarify who among low-wage workers is eligible for tips.

Advocates of legislation that defines who is eligible for tips argue the current law prevents regular employees from getting a portion of the tip pool if they have any managerial duties. Some coffee chain workers say the real problem stems from corporations refusing to pay supervisors a higher wage, forcing them to rely on tips to boost their salaries. Both sides say they want to change the law to protect the lowest paid workers.

Murray said the Senate would attempt to address the issue of pooled tips and tips for caterers in January. "The tips legislation has to be fixed, but not in this bill," Murray told the News Service, saying the current law has "unintended consequences or has been interpreted in a way that was not legislative intent that we need to fix."

Tarr, the Senate minority leader, expressed frustration that the Senate was precluded from debating the issue on Tuesday.

"It's hard to say at this point what it will be. We had a concrete proposal on the table today that everyone understood, and was, I think, ready to deal with and the opportunity was withdrawn from us to be able to have that discussion," Tarr told the News Service. "For every minute that the term manager remains undefined, we're doing a disservice to people who are working in the counter, who in many cases are being denied the opportunity to get tips because we haven't made the law clear."

Many fast food franchisees have decided to forbid tips, in an attempt to avoid class action lawsuits that have been filed by employees at several chains in recent years, senators in favor of legislation said.

Lew Finfer, a teen employment advocate with Raise Up Massachusetts, said criticism that the bill would further hurt youth hiring fails to take the whole employment picture into account. Finfer said teen hiring has been declining since 1999, arguing that the recession has had a greater impact as working class adults who lost their jobs have increasingly been willing to take jobs that pay the minimum wage.'

"When is the right time? A lot of parents of teens in need of these jobs also work for minimum wage. You'd be holding them back too," Finfer said, admitting that state funding for youth summer employment would be need to be increased in future years if the bill becomes law to avoid a decrease in the number of jobs it funds.

Raise Up Massachusetts is a coalition of community, labor and faith organizations in support of a minimum wage hike. With signatures due to local clerks Wednesday for proposed ballot questions in 2014, the Raise Up coalition says it has collected roughly 145,000 signatures in support of its ballot petition to raise the minimum wage to $10.50.