$15 Minimum Wage for Fast Food and Big Box Retail Workers Weighed by Massachusetts Legislators

by Mitchell Hirsch

Massachusetts lawmakers last week considered a bill to raise the minimum wage for fast food and big box retail workers to $15 by 2018, as workers rallied at the state capitol in Boston to show their support.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Steven Ultrino and Sen. Daniel Wolf, chairman of the joint legislative Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, would phase in higher minimum wages for workers in those industries, with an initial increase to $12 per hour on January 1, 2016 followed by $13.50 in 2017 and $15 in 2018.  A statewide campaign in support of the proposal is being backed by the organizing coalitions Raise Up Massachusetts andWage Action.

Massachusetts’ statewide minimum wage was raised by the legislature last year to $9 per hour currently, with $10 and $11 per hour minimum wage rates set to take effect over the next two years.

But, as Yannet Lathrop, researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, told a committee hearing last week, by 2018 individual workers everywhere in Massachusetts will need to be paid more than $15 an hour to afford the basic necessities of life, with single adult workers in the Boston area needing more than a $20 an hour wage.

“A $15 minimum wage is by no means excessive in light of living costs in the Commonwealth.  It would allow single workers in the less expensive regions of the state to afford a basic needs budget, and bring workers in other regions and those with children closer to being able to afford the basics,” Lathrop said, citing data available from the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator.

“By adopting a $15-an-hour wage for fast food and retail workers, Massachusetts would join a growing number of U.S. jurisdictions that over the last two years have approved raising the minimum wage to $15,” she told the committee, referring to the six West Coast cities that have enacted $15 local minimum wage ordinances as well as the recent approval of $15 minimum wages for fast food workers in New York State and for unionized home health care workers providing Medicaid-covered services in Massachusetts.

The committee also heard testimony from several workers, including Theresa Pennington, a Dunkin Donuts worker who is paid the $9 state minimum wage.

“The fast food industry is one of the fastest growing in America and more and more of the workers look like me,” Pennington said. “We are not teenagers looking for pocket change. We are women and men, we are working adults and we are trying to raise families.”

Leading academic researchers also testified in support of the $15 fast food and big box retail minimum wage proposal.  Michael Reich, an economist and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, told the committee that real wages, adjusted for inflation, have been falling for workers in the fast food industry since 1979. “In this period, the labor market has not been able to generate wage increases in line with productivity growth. To make the minimum wage a living wage, a substantial mandated wage increase is required,” he said.

Countering fears that a $15 wage floor could cause significant job losses in Massachusetts, Dr. Jeannette Wicks-Lim, a labor economist at the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, told the committee that research conducted with her colleague Dr. Robert Pollin led them to conclude that fast food and big box retail employers in the state would “be able to adjust to a $15 minimum wage by 2018 without having to shed jobs.”