Connecticut divided on phase-in of $15-an-hour minimum wage

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A hearing at the Capitol this week on minimum wage legislation featured discussions that touched on what it means to earn a living wage in Connecticut.

The Labor and Public Employees Committee held a 12-hour hearing on Thursday, which included testimony on two bills that would phase in a $15-an-hour minimum wage increase by 2022, and one by 2023. Testimony also covered how small businesses survive and thrive, timelines for enacting changes, social safety nets and impact on ALICE households — those that are asset-limited, income-constrained and employed.

The minimum wage in Connecticut is $10.10 per hour, in effect since Jan. 1, 2017. It previously was $9.60 in 2016, $9.15 in 2015 and $8.70 in 2014. The federal minimum wage is $7.25, and there are 10 states with a minimum wage above Connecticut's.

What would the proposed bills do?

Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 5004, which have the same text, would change the minimum wage to $12 per hour next January, $13.50 in 2021 and $15 in 2022.

Starting in 2023, the commissioner of the state Department of Labor annually would announce an adjustment based on the increase in the consumer price index, as calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The commissioner would announce the increase by July 15 each year, and it would become effective the following January.

The bill Gov. Ned Lamont submitted adds an extra year to phasing in a $15 minimum wage. It would increase the minimum wage to $11.25 next January, $12.50 in 2021, $13.75 in 2022 and $15 in 2023. Under Lamont's bill, the commissioner would announce the adjustment every October, rather than every July.

His proposal also would allow those under age 18 to make $8.60 per hour or 75 percent of the minimum wage, whichever is greater, for their first 90 calendar days of employment, and the overall minimum wage after. The House and Senate bills strike the provision allowing a lower minimum wage for younger teenagers.

How have Connecticut residents responded to the proposals?

Written testimony was fairly evenly split between proponents and opponents of the legislative bills, as written. Among those in favor of an increase, many cited the impact it would have on closing racial income gaps.

Steve Hernandez, executive director of the Connecticut Commission on Women, Children and Seniors, told the committee that 31 percent of all workers in Connecticut make less than $15 per hour, but the figure is 41 percent for those who are black and 57 percent among Latinos. This is according to data he got from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston on Thursday morning.

Refuting the popular belief that minimum wage workers are primarily teenagers, Connecticut AFL-CIO President Sal Luciano added that the average age of a minimum wage worker is 36, and more than 89 percent are over age 20.

But an increase would be a hardship for someone like Keith Bishop of Bishop's Orchards, who pays an average wage of $11.30 an hour to the staff that works under 20 hours per week — which has an average age of 17.3, he said. He said a minimum wage increase of the proposed magnitude must occur over five or six years, not three or four.

North Canaan Selectman Craig Whiting said he could support a small increase each year but commented, "I understand that raising the minimum wage sounds good in theory to allow people to provide a better life for themselves and their families but the minimum wage was not created to be a 'living wage.'"

Conversely, Calixto Cornejo wrote that we "need to think of the minimum as a base, one that is livable on its own." A few years ago, he was making $10.10 an hour working in a mailroom but now is in a union and earns $15.50 working full-time as a janitor. Cornejo said he can now afford "a simple but reliable car" and an apartment that allows his grandson to have his own room, rather than sharing one with Cornejo and his wife.

This went against the assertion of Rep. Joe Polletta, R-Watertown, that the workforce "looking to work a job at $15 an hour is going to struggle in the same way that someone making $10 or $11 or $12 an hour is going to struggle."

"The government should not mandate that we have a livable wage" but should "create an environment that's conducive to job growth," Polletta said. He acknowledged that "$15 an hour is not nearly enough to make it by."

John Brady of AFT Connecticut said a single adult needs to make $19.08 per hour to maintain a basic standard of living, while based on the Basic Economic Security Tables, Connecticut Women's Education and Legal Fund put that figure at $20.55.

David Cooper, analyst with the Economic Policy Institute, noted that consolidation in the pharmaceutical and other industries means there is less competition to attract workers, which means there is less pressure to raise pay for lower-skilled workers.

Connecticut Council of Small Towns lobbyist James Berardino said a minimum wage increase would impact parks and recreation, after-school and other seasonal programs that rely on minimum wage workers, which could lead to reduced programming or increased fees.

Others opposed to an increase represent home health care agencies, farms and restaurants.

"I understand the importance of small business, especially here in the state of Connecticut, and you've had to do more with less, and I hear you," committee Co-chair Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said in responding to one restaurant owner. "But we have people that have had to do more with less, and we've actually had agencies where we're cutting services to the people that already don't have anything that are crying out to us."

Scott Shepard of the conservative Yankee Institute for Public Policy offered a few alternatives: a longer phase-in, cutting taxes and regulations on businesses that hire the most minimum wage workers, and a local option.

"Connecticut has been growing much slower than the rest of New England and most of the country for a decade and more," Shepard wrote. "We cannot risk a labor-cost increase that will crush many sectors of the state's economy still further."

Except for New Hampshire, every New England state has a minimum wage higher than that of Connecticut: Massachusetts' is $12, Maine's is $11, Vermont's is $10.78 and Rhode Island's is $10.50.

The minimum wage will increase to $15 in California in 2022, Massachusetts in 2023, New Jersey in 2024 and Illinois in 2025, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

e.moser@theday.com

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