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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jul 25, 2013, 5:40 pm

A Push for Workers’ Rights in Massachusetts

BY Sarah Betancourt

On June 24, at rallies across Massachusetts, protestors pushed for a higher minimum wage and guaranteed sick leave. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)  

Freddy Rayes was chopping vegetables one morning, at the luxury restaurant in Boston’s South End where he has worked for 14 years, when his knife slipped, cutting off the tip of his finger. He says he reported the injury to his boss, who told him to keep working. Later in the afternoon, still bleeding, he decided to go to Boston Medical Center, where doctors were unable to sew the top of his finger back on, due to loss of blood.

That wasn’t the end of it. “When we tried to get paid sick time, it didn’t happen,” says his wife, Reina. So Freddy took a week off instead of the two his doctor recommended, because he was worried about going without income. “Now they’re saying the medical insurance paperwork isn’t going to go through,” says Reina. She makes only $10 an hour at her restaurant job, and worries that she will have to support both of them on her meager salary if Freddy loses his job for speaking out against his employer about not being paid for his time out of work on a job-related injury.

There are no laws guaranteeing earned sick time in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, so it’s legal for employers to fire workers for taking time off for illness or injury, or to care for sick children.

A campaign for earned sick time has been ongoing for eight years, and advocates are frustrated with the slow legislative progress. A paid sick time bill filed by state Sen. Dan Wolf (D-Harwich) was referred to the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development in January and has not moved since. The bill would mandate legally protected time off for all private sector employees, allowing workers to earn an hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked (with caps based on the size of the business or at 40 hours of sick time per year).

Efforts for a minimum wage increase have also stalled in the state. Despite years of continued lobbying, the Massachusetts minimum has been $8 an hour since 2008. A bill to raise it to $11 is also awaiting a vote in the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development; there has been no action since a June 11 hearing.

So on Wednesday, a coalition of advocacy groups, unions, legislators and faith leaders formally launched a new ballot committee called Raise Up Massachusetts with the aim of taking both questions directly to voters through a ballot initiative. Members of the National Association of Social Workers, the AFL-CIO, the Massachusetts Teachers Union, the Chinese Progressive Association, New England United for Justice and other advocacy groups attended the rally and spoke in favor of the coalition.

The coalition will first try to push the bills through the legislature before August 7, the deadline for filing ballot initiative paperwork. If that fails, the coalition says it will launch a signature drive to add two initiatives to the 2014 statewide ballot: one pushing for 40 hours of earned sick leave a year and one for a minimum-wage increase to $11 per hour.

There’s ample need for a boost in the state minimum wage, which is higher than the minimum wage, but lower than six other states, not including Washington, D.C. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, states like Ohio and Arizona that index to inflation will soon overtake Massachusetts and have higher minimum wages. According to estimates by non-profit and non-partisan Mass Budget, a full-time worker in the state making the current minimum wage of $8 an hour will earn just $16,000 per year. About 94,000 Massachusetts workers earn minimum wage or very close to it, and nearly half a million—1 in 6—earn between $8 and $11 an hour.

To put this in perspective, an annual report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that the average cost for a two-bedroom apartment in Massachusetts is $1,251, which would require minimum-wage earners to work a total of 120 hours a week to afford housing, not including other basic needs. The cost of a two-bedroom apartment in cities like Cambridge and Boston is much higher. Many workers participating in the Raise Up statewide day of rallies Wednesday said that they struggle to put a roof over their heads, and food on the table.

Sen. Marc Pacheco (D–Taunton), the sponsor of the current bill to raise the minimum wage to $11, expressed skepticism about its prospects for passage in a private phone interview with Working In These Times.  “Quite frankly, I'm concerned about the legislative process,” he says. “The business lobbyists will try to negotiate a deal where they don't have minimum wage fixed to inflation. That's what happens behind the scenes and I reject that ideology.”

“Other states are above where we are right now, and their minimum wages are adjusted periodically by gauging inflation,” he continues. “No one had a problem doing that with the gas tax passed in the legislature Wednesday. Certainly no legislator is complaining of his or her salaries being tied to inflation rate.”

Similarly, Susan Tousignant, president of SEIU Local 509 and co-chair of the Raise Up Massachusetts ballot committee, stresses that the minimum wage increase must be tied to inflation. “By indexing the minimum wage, we can ensure wages keep pace with the rising cost of living so that workers can support themselves and their families. And by passing these initiatives at the ballot box, working families won't have to wait on a prolonged legislative process for action,” she said in an interview.

The business community is split on the impacts of the minimum wage increase. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which represents roughly 8,000 Massachusetts business, has come out against a raise. NFIB Massachusetts State Director Bill Vernon asserted last August that if the minimum is raised to just $10, it will cost businesses $824 million and “the state will lose between 38,000 and 63,000 jobs lost or not created and up to $45 billion in economic activity in the next ten years. 56 per cent of these lost jobs will be in the small business sector.”

In an interview with In These Times this afternoon, Vernon added, “I would also say that an increase in the minimum wage as proposed is probably not sustainable as any wage increase must be supported by increased productivity. In addition, the minimum wage is ineffective as a poverty program since so many minimum wage workers—seasonal employees, second job workers, teens, summer jobs—are not living in poor households. The minimum wage is scattershot at best in getting financial resources to the workers who need the assistance. An increased low income tax credit would be far more effective in reaching people and families that need support.”

But in the June hearing, Margot Dorfman of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce testified in support of Pacheco’s bill, saying, "I represent women business owners in Massachusetts, and nationally, who support raising the minimum wage." The Women’s Chamber has more than 500,000 members nationwide and some 7,500 in Massachusetts.

Dorfman argues that putting more money into low-income consumers’ pockets can boost the economy. “Too many people forget that workers are also consumers,” she said. “Consumer spending drives 70 percent of our economy, and we must repower consumer spending—backed by adequate wages rather than unaffordable debt—if we are going to repower our economy. In fact, since most low-wage workers work for the major chains, boosting the minimum wage means that rather than going to Wal-Mart or McDonald’s bank accounts—whether in Bentonville or Chicago or in the Cayman Islands—more revenue from Massachusetts customers will be paid back out to Massachusetts workers, who will spend it at local businesses.”

Many high-ranking public officials offered their support for a wage increase at the statewide day of action yesterday, including Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development co-chair Senator Dan Wolf, and State Treasurer Steven Grossman. Both are running in the 2014 gubernatorial election to take over the seat for retiring Governor Deval Patrick.

State Rep. Carl Sciortino (D-Medford), a candidate for former U.S. Rep. Ed Markey’s seat in the fifth district, said, “As a member of Congress I will co-sponsor and work towards an increase in the national minimum wage. A full time job shouldn't leave families living in poverty, and we must increase wages if we are ever going to reverse the growing gap between the rich and poor.”

Senator Pacheco said at the rally, “I want a straight-up vote. Today, I sent a letter to the two chairs of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development and asked that it be reported favorably as soon as possible. It has been six weeks. It needs to get to the floors of the House and the Senate so we can vote on it.” According to an interview with the Senator later in the afternoon, and discussion with organizers from the Raise the Wage Coalition, this is unlikely to happen.

If the two bills don’t move forward, Raise the Minimum Wage Coalition organizers plan to submit paperwork for an earned-sick-time and minimum-wage ballot question to Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Office for review by Wednesday, August 7. She will then determine if the measure meets constitutional requirements and send it to Secretary of State William Galvin.

The process of collecting 70,000 certified voter signatures to put the measure on the ballot would begin in October. 

Sarah Betancourt is a Boston-based journalist who has worked for Patch, Fox News' Liberaland, and Open Media Boston.

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