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New Britain — President Barack Obama's message that those who "do backbreaking work every day" deserve a raise was greeted enthusiastically by a crowd of about 2,000 Wednesday at Central Connecticut State University.
Obama's proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 was simply common sense, one student shouted.
"It is common sense," Obama replied. "It's time for $10.10. It's time to give America a raise."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez and governors from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont stood behind the president as he told the crowd that it wasn't enough to retain jobs in America. Rather, he said, the United States had to provide more good jobs with good wages, give everyone the opportunity for affordable education and make sure women receive equal pay for equal work.
"Nobody who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty," Obama said.
Obama said he asked Congress to raise the minimum wage a year ago and that thus far six states, including Connecticut, have raised their minimum wages.
"So many of us understand that at the heart of America, the central premise of this country is the chance to achieve your dreams," Obama said. "If you work hard, if you take responsibility — it doesn't matter where you start, it is where you finish."
State Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said he thought the president was at ease on Wednesday.
"I thought he demonstrated flashes of humor, certainly optimism," Williams said. "He knows that he is among friends in Connecticut and he knows that this is a state that leads the way in terms of helping workers and their families."
The president brought a lot of energy, said Clifton E. Graves Jr., of New Haven. Graves said he was optimistic about the minimum wage increase in Connecticut.
"I think nationally it is going to be a real struggle for the president," he said.
Nicholas Kirychuk of Meriden said he got to shake the president's hand and that he "loved" Obama's speech. He said his daughter makes the minimum wage and that she was "so excited" Jan. 1 when her wage went up to $8.70 per hour.
"She loves to spend," he said. "The more they have, the more they spend."
Obama said that he has raised the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for federal contractors, has worked with state and local officials to increase the minimum wage and asked businesses to increase wages.
The retail chain Costco has understood for a long time the need to pay fair wages, Obama said. They understand that it instills loyalty and, "by the way, their stocks do great, they are high," the president said.
"It's not bad business to do right by your workers; it is good business," he said.
If there is a higher minimum wage, workers have more to spend and businesses benefit, he added.
An increase would help retail workers, restaurant workers, hospital and fast-food staff. They don't want to get rich, he said.
"But they do feel like if they are going to do backbreaking work every day, at least let them have the money to pay their bills," Obama said.
To this, a young woman in the crowd said, "I know that's right."
But if the federal government is going to raise the minimum wage, Congress has to get on board, Obama said.
"This should not be that hard, you would think because nearly three in four Americans, about half of all Republicans, support raising the minimum wage," he said. "The problem is that Republicans in Congress don't support raising the minimum wage, and I don't know if that is just because I proposed it."
Obama closed his speech by saying he would continue to push for the minimum wage as long as he is president.
A Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed that 71 percent of Connecticut voters surveyed support an increase. Of Democrats, 93 percent are in favor while 53 percent of Republicans are against.
The annual salary of someone who works for $10.10 an hour, 40 hours per week, would be $21,008. About 70,000 to 90,000 members of Connecticut's 1.7 million-strong workforce earn the minimum wage, according to the Malloy administration.
Nationwide, an increase in the minimum wage would benefit more than 28 million workers directly and indirectly. Of those, 55 percent are female, according to a report last month from the Council of Economic Advisers, an agency within the Executive Office of the President.
Passage seen likely in Connecticut
Before the president's arrival, hundreds of college students, members of the public and dozens of state officials piled into the Kaiser Gym.
"It's an amazing experience to have him, to get to see him speak at all, let alone in our own back yard," said Jessica Jenkins, a senior at CCSU who is studying communications and was covering the event.
Democratic state legislators and mayors said they wouldn't miss the opportunity to hear President Obama speak. Most believed Obama's visit would help Connecticut increase its minimum wage to $10.10 per hour in 2017 but said they weren't sure whether the minimum wage would be increased at the federal level.
"I think it will help Connecticut pass the minimum wage and the governor's leadership on this issue has been terrific," said House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden. "I think we have the votes in the legislature."
State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, said he looked forward to hearing the president's rationale for increasing the minimum wage.
"Obviously it is a controversial issue and I have heard from constituents on both sides," Maynard said. "So I am eager to hear the president's view."
State Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, said Connecticut had been talking about increasing the minimum wage for a long time so he wasn't surprised that President Obama was visiting the state.
He said increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2017 was reasonable for Connecticut, but he said he wasn't sure whether it would pass at the federal level.
Maynard said he thought it was unlikely there would be a minimum wage increase at the federal level with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Sharkey said he also wasn't sure whether it would be passed at the federal level.
"We do things differently here in Connecticut," he said. "I think we are usually ahead of the game when it comes to a lot of issues."
Last year, the legislature passed and the governor signed into law legislation that raised the state's minimum wage to $8.70 from $8.25 on Jan. 1, 2014, and will raise it further, to $9 on Jan. 1, 2015. The proposal Malloy made last month, if approved, would increase it annually until it is $10.10 on Jan. 1, 2017. The minimum wage in Rhode Island and Massachusetts is $8 per hour.