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Raising Labor Standards in Massachusetts

Ilana Novick

Low wage workers and their advocates have been pushing for a paid sick leave bill for almost eight years in Massachusetts, where it’s still legal for an employer to fire workers for taking time off due to sickness or injury. The latest bill, introduced by Democratic State Senator Dan Wolf was presented to the senate’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development in January, where it’s been stuck ever since.

Moving at an equally glacial legislative pace is the push to raise the Massachusetts minimum wage, which has been $8 an hour since 2008. While it’s higher than the Federal limit of $7.25, it’s not nearly enough for most families to live on. Legislation to raise it to $11 also continues to languish in front of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development. In order to strengthen both of their causes, a coalition of advocacy groups, unions, legislators and faith leaders started Raise Up Massachusetts, a campaign that combines both goals, and if the legislature won’t pass the laws, they’ll take them directly to voters through a ballot initiative.

Some business leaders continue to maintain that the proposed paid sick leave legislation is “unnecessary and intrusive, and especially expensive and burdensome for small businesses.” Business advocacy groups made similar arguments against raising the minimum wage. Bill Vernon, the president of the Massachusetts State Director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses says that if the minimum wage is raised to $10 “the state will lose between 38,000 and 63,000 jobs lost or not created and up to $45 billion in economic activity in the next ten years. 56 per cent of these lost jobs will be in the small business sector.”

Demos's previous research shows that this is not necessarily the case for either piece of legislation. In recent testimony in support of a paid sick time bill for New York City, Amy Traub notes, “Paid sick time is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. It is the law in 145 countries around the world. It’s now the law in the state of Connecticut, and the cities of Washington D.C., Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.”

Even some small business owners, who were purported to be the biggest victims of such a bill, have changed their mind. Bill Sloan, a café owner in San Francisco, which has had a paid sick time law since 2007, initially told NPR that the law would make it harder for him to operate his business, and “Small business is going to have to pass that cost onto their customers.” Now, Sloan tells the New York Times that the law has not been difficult or expensive to administer, increasing his payroll costs by less than 1 percent.

As for the other part of the campaign, in a report on raising wages for retail workers, Catherine Ruetschlin points out that when they receive an extra dollar in pay, “workers will spend it on goods or services that were out of reach before. This ongoing unmet need makes low-income households more likely to spend new earnings immediately – channeling any addition to their income right back into the economy, creating growth and jobs.”

Raise Up Massachusetts has support from the National Association of Social Workers, the AFL-CIO, the Massachusetts Teachers Union, the Chinese Progressive Association, New England United for Justice, Rise Up Massachusetts, in addition to lawmakers such as State Rep. Carl Sciortino, Senator Dan Wolf, and State Treasurer Steven Grossman, all of whom attended the group’s recent rally.

If the two bills don’t move forward, the next step is launching a signature drive to add two initiatives to the 2014 statewide ballot: one pushing for 40 hours of earned sick leave a year and one for a minimum-wage increase to $11 per hour. They’ll need 70,000 signatures, and the process for collecting them would begin in October. Let's hope legislators get on board before it comes to a ballot initiative.