Area activists bolster effort to raise state minimum wage

December 15, 2013

Boston Globe

Local activists are celebrating a key milestone in the statewide campaign to raise the minimum wage and guarantee earned employee sick time.

Raise up Massachusetts, a coalition of labor, faith, and community organizations, turned in well above the 68,911 minimum number of certified signatures needed to advance both proposals toward spots on the November 2014 state ballot. The group filed 111,758 signatures supporting the minimum wage increase and 96,970 for sick time.

The campaign seeks to raise the state minimum wage from the current $8 to $9.25 per hour as of Jan. 1, 2015, and to $10.50 per hour as of Jan. 1, 2016. There are approximately 600,000 minimum wage workers in the state.

If the state Legislature fails to act on the petitions, then supporters need to collect another 11,485 signatures by July 2 of next year to get the questions on the November state ballot. The Senate recently adopted a bill that would raise the minimum wage, but the House has yet to act.

The bill approved by the Senate would hike the minimum wage to $11 per hour by 2016 and then tie it to the rate of inflation. The Senate also added an amendment that would increase the minimum wage for tipped workers, such as waiters, to 50 percent of the minimum wage.

Some business leaders have opposed the minimum wage hike, but have said they might go along with one coupled with changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system that could help them cut costs. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo indicated that House leaders favor that approach.

Mobilized by coalition members, hundreds of area residents joined in the signature effort at churches and in front of supermarkets, polling places, and other venues. Many say they were encouraged by the response.

These are bread and butter issues that kind of transcend ideology,” said Paul Drake who is director of Massachusetts Interfaith Worker Justice and coordinated a ballot campaign in Beverly, where he lives. “People believe if you work, you should be able to make a living. . . . And they know you shouldn’t be fired just for taking care of your family and your health.”

Passage of the ballot question also would lift the minimum wage for tipped employees from the current $2.63 to $6.30 an hour as of Jan. 1, 2016.

Starting in 2017, the minimum wage and the rate for tipped workers would be increased by the rate of inflation.

The other ballot question would require employers with more than 10 workers to allow up to 40 hours of earned sick time per year. Employees would earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, and could use it to care for a medical issue affecting themselves or a family member.

About 25 staff and volunteers from Lawrence Community Works took part in the signature drive. The organization worked closely with Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union.

It’s great,” said Spencer Buchholz, Lawrence Community Works’ director of network organizing. He said the state petition drive, coupled with the Senate action, shows that “there is plenty of community will and political will to make this change, and that’s pretty exciting.”

Jessica Andors, executive director of Lawrence Community Works, said the ballot measures would have “a tremendous impact on Lawrence,” noting the city’s large number of low-income families.

To raise the minimum wage so it is closer to a living wage and gives people just a tiny bit more breathing room to put money aside for savings and to do something that’s an investment in their family’s future is super important,” Andors said. “If you are making $8 an hour and you are the only breadwinner in the house, it’s a daily struggle just to feed your family and pay the rent.”

The Essex County Community Organization, a faith-based social justice organization headquartered in Lynn, organized more than 150 volunteers from among its 26 member institutions, gathering thousands of signatures across the region.

We saw this really as a moral issue, that people, if they work hard, should be able to make enough to take care of their families, and they shouldn’t have to decide between losing a job or taking a sick day” for themselves or their child, said Daniel Lesser, the group’s executive director.

Robert G. Bradford, president of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, said the group recently surveyed its members and other businesses on the subject of hiking the minimum wage and found about half favored it and half opposed it.

He said among those in favor, many said they backed an increase but not to the $11 per hour rate proposed by the Senate.

A sharp rise in the minimum wage would force a company with a tight profit margin to either raise prices or reduce its workforce, Bradford said. “In the end, companies have to make a profit or else go out of business.”

Sylvia Ramirez, director of the youth and families department for the Chelsea Collaborative, noted that increasing the pay of the 225 young people in the collaborative’s summer jobs program would have a “huge impact” on her budget.

But it doesn’t matter to me because in the long run it’s going to help our community,” she said.

The collaborative was an active participant in the signature drive, with about 12 staff and volunteers collecting 3,425 signatures from Chelsea and surrounding communities.

The Rev. Brian Flynn, pastor of St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart parishes in Lynn, said both churches collected signatures for the petitions at masses, and some members did their own signature gathering.

We spoke about it at our masses,” Flynn said, “and asked people if they would sign, linking it with the social justice message of the church and just caring for our brothers and sisters who may not have enough.”