PAID LEAVE, MINIMUM WAGE CAMPAIGNS SPURRING TALKS ON THE HILL [+AUDIO]
By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 30, 2018.....Two key Democrats in the House and Senate are working to make sure voters don't have to decide whether a $15 minimum wage and guaranteed paid family and medical leave is good public policy, but it's another group holding all the cards.
The Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development held a hearing Tuesday on two proposed ballot questions that, barring a legislative compromise or advocates failing to gather the requisite signatures, will be headed to the ballot in November.
The first question would raise the minimum wage from $11 an hour to $15 in single dollar increments starting in 2019, and raise the minimum wage for tipped workers from $3.75 to $9 per hour, plus tips. The second question would guarantee workers 12 to 16 weeks of paid leave to care for a family member or after the birth of child, or up to 26 paid weeks for in the event of their own illness or injury.
"We're very interested in making a deal," Rep. Paul Brodeur, the House chair of the committee, said after the hearing.
Sen. Jason Lewis, who co-chairs the Labor and Workforce Development Committee with Brodeur, expressed a similar goal in his closing remarks at the hearing.
"I do believe these issue are best resolved through the legislative process because there are a lot of factors to consider," Lewis said. "Rep. Brodeur and I are very committed to working with all the parties to discuss and work through these two issues and we are hopeful that we are able to resolve these through the legislative process and they won't have to be on the ballot, but time will tell," Lewis said.
Talks are well underway to reach a compromise over paid family and medical leave, while discussions about a minimum wage increase are less developed. At the center of those negotiations is the Raise Up Coalition, a group of community advocates, religious organizations and unions with past success in taking their policy goals to the ballot to circumvent the Legislature
SHNS Audio: Labor and Workforce Development hearing
"We're trying to come to a policy and a political agreement among the major stakeholders. Obviously, Raise Up, because they brought both questions to the ballot, they have something of a veto power over what happens, but we're going to continue talking until we can't talk any more and hopefully address this legislatively," Brodeur said.
The fact that Raise Up seemingly holds all the cards in these negotiations has left some opponents of the ballot proposals feeling boxed out.
Retailers Association of Massachusetts President Jon Hurst sat in the front row during Tuesday's hearing, but did not offer any testimony. His organization, along with other business groups, have previously testified in opposition to legislation seeking to do the same as the ballot question.
"What was I supposed to ask for? Think about. What do you ask for? We don't like it, so put it on the ballot, or we don't like it so pass it?" Hurst said after the meeting, explaining that instead he plans to testify Wednesday when the Revenue Committee hears testimony on his proposed ballot question to lower the sales tax to 5 percent.
Brodeur said the paid family and medical leave proposal has gotten more attention from he and Lewis so far because it is the more complicated of the two ballot question with more details to iron out and negotiate over.
"It's fair to say we are further along in the process with PFML than we are on minimum wage," he said.
Asked whether negotiations over paid leave could bleed into talks regarding the minimum wage or the sales tax, Brodeur said, "Right now, not so much. Can I see that changing? Sure."
"All the folks that are interested in all three things have cross-connecting relationships to the issues, but is everyone sitting at a table right now saying we'll give you a point on the sales tax for a buck on the minimum wage? No."
Organizations representing both large and small businesses, however, remain concerned about the costs that the minimum wage and family leave policies would add on employers in a state with already high operating expenses.
"Tonight we're going to hear the State of the Union address and hear about the tax cuts and how everybody's flush with cash. Main Street is not flush with cash," said Robert Mellion, of the Bristol County Chamber of Commerce. "I guess the ask here is if we're going to do this then please let's find a way to at least carve out a way to make small business in our state viable and protect the retail industry because they're taking hits."
The paid family and medical leave program called for in the 2018 ballot question would cost workers and employers close to $1 billion, according to two separate analyses, and Associated Industries of Massachusetts says the state would be on the hook for $55 million for its workforce and another $70 million to cover the bureaucracy needed to run the program.
According to A.I.M., employers under the proposed program would pay into a new trust fund 0.63 percent of each employee's annual wages, with employees seeing a new payroll deduction on their paychecks.
While AIM views the measure as "disruptive, expensive and unnecessary," its supporters have gathered thousands of voter signatures to advance a measure that they say will enable more workers to take their own medical leave or care for ill family members without suffering economic hardship associated with going unpaid for weeks at a time.
Megan Costello, executive director of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh's Department of of Women's Advancement, testified that a paid leave policy would help business owners with employee retention, slowing turnover and reducing training costs.
"Paid family medical leave is good for individuals, it's good for working families and it's good for businesses' bottom lines," Costello told the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.
Beth Monaghan, the CEO of the public relations firm InkHouse and vice chair of the Alliance for Business Leadership, said her company's policy to offer 12 weeks of paid family leave is expensive, but has also engendered loyalty among employees who she continues to rely on to run parts of her firm.
"We know it's unequivocally good for parents, but it's also good for business," Monaghan said.
Darius Cephus, a member of the national organizing committee of "Fight for $15," told lawmakers that he makes minimum wage - $11 an hour – working at Chipotle, and is responsible for covering all his family's bills.
"My wages are so low I've been priced out of Dorchester and had to move in with my grandparents in Norwood," Cephus said. "I can't take a day off work. I can't take a moment of peace, because every day counts, every hour counts."
Nicole Rodriguez, of Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said that in California where there is a paid family leave law on the books mothers have been more likely to return to work and 99 percent of employers report positive or neutral impacts on employee moral, profitability and productivity.
And Jeremy Thompson said that of the 1 million workers who would get a raise from a $15 minimum wage, 56 percent would be women and 10 percent would be teens, working to pour more money into local economies and, in turn, helping local businesses.
Associated Industries of Massachusetts Vice President John Regan, in his written testimony to the committee, told lawmakers the employers want to work with legislators to avoid a ballot campaign over paid leave "by creating a better approach to providing leave to their employees."
The Legislature now has three months before ballot petitions will go back into the field to collect a second round of 10,792 signatures to reach the ballot and five months before groups would turn in those signatures to lock in a spot on the ballot.
Brodeur declined to handicap the chances of reach a legislative agreement before then on one or more of the ballot issues: "I'm always optimistic, but I'm a terrible gambler," he said.
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