February 17, 2017
Reporter: Lucy Gellman
Source: New Haven Independent
Hartford—Paying minimum-wage workers $15 an hour would drive “the 1 percent” and the jobs they create out of Connecticut, argued a Republican lawmaker from East Haddam. To which a New Haven Democrat shot back: It’s time low-wage workers get a break, too.
That exchange between took place here Thursday afternoon at a marathon hearing of the state legislature’s Labor and and Public Employees Committee, where two lightning-rod bills in the ongoing income-inequality debate were taken up: One to gradually raise the state’s minimum wage from $10.10 to $15 per hour by 2022; the other to require all employers to give workers paid family medical leave.
These two proposals generally pitted unions and labor-friendly Democrats and advocates against Republicans and business groups with differing views of how jobs are created and lost and wealth is shared.
The spirited debate Thursday began an hour before members of the public testified at the hearing. Republican State Rep. Melissa Ziobron of East Haddam — who has proposed a counter-measure to increase the number of hours that businesses can ask employees under the age of 19 to work — predicted that a minimum wage hike would decimate businesses and drive out the state’s “1 percent.”
“I’m thinking about the 1 percent as the safety net of Connecticut,” she said. Her district, which comprises East Hampton, East Haddam and parts of Colchester, includes many business owners who are responsible for keeping people employed, she said.
“Think about the 1 percent,” she urged.
“Are you aware that Connecticut is growing millionaires?” New Haven State Rep. Robyn Porter, who represents the lower-income Newhallville neighborhood, asked Ziobron. After a year focused on closing a nearly $1 billion budget largely through cuts to the needy, the Connecticut General Assembly had returned with a bigger, $1.7 billion projected hole in the budget, Porter said — yet it continues to rule out taxing the state’s highest earners, hedge fund managers, and business owners. Porter told Ziobron that failing to raise the minimum wage doesn’t protecting the state’s businesses — it punishes people struggling to pay their bills.
Ziobron countered with an anecdote about her favorite cafe, a little outpost called Abbeez Frozen Yogurt Bar. If the minimum wage were raised to $15 in the next five years, she said, the owner would have to close the business and fire her existing handful of employees.
For decades now, both sides of this debate nationally have cited competing studies to claim that raising the wage does, or doesn’t, lead to small-business closings. The most recent consensus of economists is that the minimum can grow in many places without corresponding hiring dips, though finding that tipping point is not an exact science, and both sides have anecdotal evidence to bolster their case.
“I’m thinking about my constituents,” who are simply struggling to make ends meet with a living wage, Porter fired back. “I’m just concerned we’re putting all of our eggs in the 1 percent basket,” she said later in the evening. “Why aren’t we investing more in the middle class … putting our eggs in the 99 percent basket?”
The Calm Before The Storm
Looney: Trying again on family leave.
Hours before the hearing began, New Haven legislators joined other Democrats at a press conference to voice their support for the bills . Joined by several low-wage workers, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members, paid family leave advocates, and members of Connecticut Working Families, legislators painting them as intertwined.
Right now employers must by law offer only unpaid leave for new parents, caregivers and workers with serious illnesses; the bill now up, pushed for years by New Haven State Sen. Martin Looney, would extend the benefits of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to all current workers, who would pay into the system. These two proposals have generally pitted unions and labor-friendly Democrats against Republicans and business groups.
The support for the bills comes after a failed attempt to pass minimum wage increases and paid family and medical leave during last year’s legislative session. In December of last year, the Connecticut Low-Wage Employer Advisory Board released a new report, with data that Democrats are now using to back their arguments. Using collected testimonies, public policy background, and livable wage calculations, the report concluded that 20 percent of Connecticut’s workforce (that’s 336,000 workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute) currently earn less than $15 an hour. Those professions include “child care providers, fast food workers, agricultural workers, home care workers providing care for disabled and elderly individuals, security guards, industrial laundry workers,” among others.
Reps. Vail, Rutigliano, and Bocchino.
Opponents have argued that minimum-wage workers are largely teenagers or young adults earning discretionary income. Looney dismissed that characterization as a “fake fact,” stating that the average low wage worker is a woman in her 30s with children. He added that, according to the report, the low-wage workforce is “disproportionately female, African American, and Latino.”
“Requiring a sufficient minimum wage in the State of Connecticut is not a luxury; it’s an existential right,” said Looney. “It is a critically important issue for thousands upon thousands of Connecticut families. For parents trying to make ends meet, for single moms working two or three jobs just to provide basic necessities for their children, there may be no more important, pressing issue than earning a fair, adequate and ‘livable’ wage.”
“The inability of employees to take paid time off to care for loved ones or themselves can leave them with no choice but to abandon family members in their time of need, or to neglect their own health,” he added. “Working families should not have to face the prospect of economic ruin when presented with serious family needs such as caring for a newborn, a spouse, or their parents.”
“This will be the year we finally get this through,” added State Rep. Porter. “It’s common-sense reform. And families need this.”
Who Earns The Minimum
California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts have all raised their minimum wages to similar levels to New Haven’s proposal, and may now begin to attract Connecticut’s workforce, Looney argued. Judging on those states’ early outcomes of raising the minimum wage, economies appeared buoyed by the decision—jobs didn’t leave the state, and workers were more likely to invest back into their communities. (You can read the full report here.)
Writing in, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp added her voice to that mix with statistics: Minimum-wage earners working a 40-hour work week earn $21,008 annually, which falls significantly under the national poverty line ($28,290). Since its increase to $10.10 last year, the state’s new minimum wage has “improved the lives” of over 70,000 residents—but could be doing a great deal more, according to Harp.
“It is not a partisan stance to say that every Connecticut resident working a 40-hour week should be paid enough to build a safe, healthy life without needing to rely on government assistance for housing, healthcare, or food,” she wrote. “The path out of poverty is not an individual but a collective endeavor, and it reaps rewards not just for the worker but for our entire community.”
That argument was the beginning of a battle for which both sides arrived prepared, armed with printed and practiced testimony that they waited hours to give. Like Gretchen Raffa, director of public policy, advocacy and strategic engagement and Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. Raffa arrived around 2 p.m. for the beginning of the hearing; she took the mic close to 10.
Speaking on both paid family leave and minimum wage increases, she made her pitch: there was no way this wouldn’t be good for the state’s economy.
“No one who is working full-time should be in poverty,” she said, locking eyes with Porter and Sen. Ed Gomes at points. “The current minimum wage is too low to allow Connecticut workers to have even minimal security or dignity. This bill … will protect the rights of Connecticut workers by guaranteeing the health and economic security of all Connecticut citizens, which would allow Connecticut citizens to thrive instead of barely surviving.”
Others took the same data-driven tack. Labor economist Jeanette Wicks-Lim spoke about states that had raised the minimum wage, noting that Ziobron’s vision of job loss had never come to pass in California and Wisconsin. Instead of leaving the state, businesses remained, and their workers stayed on for longer. Cities, meanwhile, saw a rise in their residents investing resources back into communities.
Porter and Gomes.
Speaking on behalf of Connecticut Voices for Children, Derek Thomas of New Haven argued that over 110,000 children would benefit from a raise in minimum wage, drawing legislators’ attention to data collected from the Connecticut’s Self-Sufficiency Standard, measuring income adequacy for women and their families in the state.
Those findings? The amount needed to “make ends meet” for one adult and one preschooler varies tremendously, Thomas said—from $21.14 per hour ($44,675 annually) in Windham to $36.84 per hour ($77,800 annually) in Lower Fairfield. That’s 280 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) to 488 percent of the FPL, according to the report.
In other words, Thomas said, “A $15 minimum wage makes sense to ensure that full-time workers can afford to live and work in Connecticut … strengthening the minimum wage would significantly impact the standard of living for hundreds of thousands of Connecticut workers and their families.”
“We’d Be Done”
Speaking on behalf of his company Educational Playcare, Connecticut Childcare Association Director Gerry Pastor expressed his concerns with the raise in minimum wage.
“Not to sound overly dramatic, but the raise in minimum wage is going to wipe out the entire child care community,” he said.
Over 35 years, Pastor and his wife have expanded Educational Playcare to cover 13 sites across the state, serving 2,000 children a year with the help of 450 teachers and staff. While some of their teachers already make more than that depending on their education level, several of their staff members do not. A raise in minimum wage would result in a raise for everyone, he said. Which Pastor said he likes in theory—but can’t afford.
That’s the catch, he told legislators. Connecticut already has very high costs of childcare: the average cost for an infant is $14,079 a year, and he and his wife aren’t willing to raise tuition (close to $700 per month). So they’re waiting to see what happens.
“If this passes, we’d be done,” he said after giving his testimony, miming locking a door for the last time. “I’m 65, so I wouldn’t go to another state. But we’d have to close. There’s no way [of us] absorbing the increase in wages.”
He wasn’t the only one who voiced concerns. Representing South Windsor’s Parks and Recreation Department, Ray Favreau invoked the 660 parks in the state that are maintained, in part, by workers earning less than $15 an hour.
“In Connecticut, you’re adding $500,000 to the budget to accommodate that increase. You’re asking us to raise our user fees,” he said.
Eric W. Gjede, assistant counsel for the Connecticut Business Industry Association, testified that if the cost of maintaining low-wage workers goes up, legislators will see a number of big-box stores and small businesses leave the state.
“The cost of many of these proposals would add comes at massive cost to businesses,” he said, referencing both the raise in minimum wage and paid family and medical leave. “It’s a bad deal for our businesses and taxpayers. Paid sick leave destroyed businesses, and this is going to again.”
He predicted that a rising minimum wage will hasten the introduction of automation—self-serve kiosks in the grocery store, or at large restaurant franchises like McDonald’s. Like Ziobron, he argued that if wages continue to rise, businesses will leave the state along with wealthy residents. He invoked General Electric’s move last year, suggesting other companies would follow. (Republicans generally argue that Connecticut taxes and unresponsive government drove out GE; Democrats largely argue that GE made a strategic decision to relocate to a better tech-and-high-education environment of the kind that government can help nurture here.)
And new businesses will be less likely to come here with a $20.20 minimum wage, Gjede predicted.
“From what you’re saying the math is completely correct,” said Rep. Mike Bocchino, who represents Greenwich. “I’m hearing you say that companies are using automation as a threat—but it’s not a threat, it’s a reality. That’s going to be the end of the workforce.”
“The math that you’re talking about involves a hell of a lot of other people,” Gomes responded. “If you want to make the economy work, give people a decent wage! Years ago, when people talked about giants of industry, they used the term robber barons. Well, the robber barons are back.”
“We need businesses to compete,” Gjede responded.
“Sandwich Generation Syndrome”
Gjede also voiced concern over the proposal to institute mandatory paid family and medical leave, which would deduct a portion of employers’ paychecks each month and place it into a dedicated fund.
A host of New Haven Democrats — Looney, Porter, Rep. Juan Candelaria, Rep. Roland Lemar — have proposed the bill along with Hamden Reps. James Albis, Mike D’Agostino and Josh Elliott. At the pre-hearing press conference, Looney said the bill aims at “sandwich generation syndrome”—stuck between caring for a child and an aging parent at the same time.
Gjede said he’s sympathetic to the sandwich generation, and believes as a representative of the CBIA that businesses should offer employees paid family and medical leave if they can afford to do so. But he argued employees should not have to partially subsidize a benefit they may or may not use. He also said he concerned mandatory paid leave would drive potential workers and their potential employers from the state.
“Why should employees have to subsidize the program?” he asked, also noting that paid family leave created temporary positions that businesses needed to fill.
Lucy Nolan, director of End Hunger Connecticut!, had a different idea entirely about the bill. Leaning forward into the microphone, she explained that the organization, as small as it was, had offered paid family and medical leave since its inception, leading higher rates of retention overall when employees returned to work.
“If our little small organization can do it,” she said, “I don’t see how others can’t.”
Following is a status report on bills of particular interest to New Haven before the state legislature this session:(Please see link to article here to view table of bills)