July 31, 2017

Group looking to raise Mass. minimum wage to $15

Sam Doran/SHNS
Attorney General Maura Healey's office would receive two planned ballot questions.

The left-leaning coalition that used the initiative petition process to get an earned sick time law on the books in 2014 is now looking to load up the 2018 ballot with three proposals: an income surtax on high earners, a $15 minimum wage by 2022, and a measure seeking guaranteed paid family and medical leave.

Raise Up Massachusetts is familiar with using the ballot as leverage. The group used the threat of a ballot question to spur the Legislature in 2014 to raise the minimum wage to its current level, $11 an hour, and the new plans show a continued commitment to addressing income inequality in Massachusetts.

Raise Up Massachusetts on Monday confirmed plans to submit language for the two ballot questions to Attorney General Maura Healey's office on Wednesday, the deadline to propose initiative petitions. A constitutional amendment, backed by the coalition, proposing a 4 percent surtax on incomes over $1 million to raise revenue intended for education and transportation, is already on track for the ballot.

"By raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, ensuring access to paid family and medical leave, and investing in our transportation and public education systems with the Fair Share Amendment, Massachusetts can build an economy that works for all of us, not just those at the top," Tyrék Lee, the executive vice president of 1199SEIU, said in a statement. "We're committed to winning this agenda in the Legislature or at the ballot box."

If both the initiatives are certified, it will set up a dynamic similar to 2014, when the coalition proposed ballot questions hiking the wage minimum wage and instituting earned sick time.

The activists had proposed raising the minimum wage from $8 to $10.50 and tying it to inflation, but withdrew their petition after legislators, pushed into action to avert a ballot fight, passed a law increasing the hourly wage floor to $11 over three years. The sick leave question remained on the ballot and passed with 59.4 percent of the vote.

"Since our diverse coalition came together, we've raised wages and won benefits for over a million working people in Massachusetts," said Raise Up co-chair Lew Finfer, the executive director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network. "By organizing people where they live, where they work, and where they worship, we are building a majority movement to create an economy that that invests in families, gives everyone the opportunity to succeed, and creates broadly shared prosperity."

The final phase of the 2014 minimum wage hike, a $1 increase, took effect in January of this year.

Small businesses are still absorbing the cost of the 2014 laws, National Federation of Independent Business Massachusetts director Christopher Carlozzi said. He said the coalition's two new proposals could place an added burden on NFIB members, which have an average of five employees.

"It's just not a good time, especially with the economy heading in the wrong direction," Carlozzi told the News Service. "Proposals like this only make that situation worse."

Carlozzi said lawmakers are often mindful that businesses in Massachusetts compete against peers in neighboring states with lower labor costs, and that he expects the Legislature would look to take some action on the issues before next year's election.

Bills are pending before the Legislature to raise the hourly wage floor to $15 and create an insurance program making workers eligible for paid leave to recover from a serious illness or injury, care for a sick or injured family member or new child. But there's no apparent consensus among legislators on a path forward on either issue.

Raise Up backs paid leave bills filed by Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka of Ashland and Rep. Ken Gordon of Bedford. Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford has also filed a paid leave bill.

The coalition is putting forward ballot question language that most closely aligns with Spilka's bill, with up to 16 weeks of job-protected paid leave and a maximum weekly benefit of $1,000, according to a press release. Currently, leave policies vary from employer to employer.

Critics say the paid leave plans differ from similar laws passed elsewhere because other states do not require employers to contribute to the paid leave insurance, while the bills in Massachusetts would.

California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington and New York have passed paid family leave insurance laws, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. New York's law, the most recent, was enacted in 2016 and takes effect in 2018. Washington D.C. also passed a paid leave law this year, with the policy set to take effect in July 2020.

Gordon said he would prefer to see paid leave passed by the Legislature rather than as a ballot question.

"I think this is a program that is best implemented through the legislative process because it's complicated, and we can get to the best place through hearing from all sides and making it make sense to all interests," he said.

Massachusetts and Washington currently have the highest minimum wage of any state in the country at $11 an hour, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Washington, D.C. now has a $12.50 minimum wage, which is set to become $15 by 2020.

Rep. Dan Donahue of Worcester and the late Sen. Ken Donnelly of Arlington each filed bills that would raise the minimum wage by $1 per year until it reaches $15 in 2021, with further increases each year tied to the cost of living.

The proposed ballot question would also phase in the wage floor increases and includes a cost of living trigger.

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