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Activists mulling push for another minimum wage hike

Adam Reilly

Back in 2018, as supporters of a $15-an-hour state minimum wage prepared to place the measure before voters as a ballot question, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill known as the “Grand Bargain” into law. It raised the non-tipped minimum wage from $11 to $15 over five years and created a paid family and sick leave program, while also establishing a permanent sales tax holiday and phasing out so-called premium pay for Sundays and legal holidays.

Now, the same advocates who spearheaded that minimum wage push seem to be girding for another.

On Tuesday, Raise Up Massachusetts, a progressive coalition of labor, community and faith-based organizations, released a statement that celebrated the minimum wage finally reaching $15 as of Jan. 1, 2023 — but simultaneously described that new rate as inadequate.

“Despite the progress we’ve made, the minimum wage is still insufficient to meet the needs of working families, especially amid rising inflation,” Beth Kontos, the president of AFT Massachusetts, said in the statement.

So is another push for yet another minimum wage hike in the offing?

“Raise Up Mass. is certainly taking a serious look at it,” said Steve Crawford, a spokesperson for the group, calling it “perverse” that the benefits of the state’s beefed-up minimum wage have been undercut by inflation.

If a campaign for another hike is launched in the new year, Crawford said, it’s not clear if it will focus on action from the Legislature or on placing a ballot question before voters in 2024.

“There’s value in either track, but we just haven’t gotten that far in the decision making,” he said.

In November, Raise Up Massachusetts won a major victory when voters approved Ballot Question 1, the so-called “Millionaires Tax” or “Fair Share Amendment,” which creates a new surtax on the portion of incomes over $1 million.

In theory, the state minimum wage’s soon-to-be-completed increase to $15 an hour — among the highest in the country — is a boon for low-wage workers in Massachusetts, where the cost of housing and overall cost of living can be prohibitively high.

Nationally, however, inflation means that one dollar today buys significantly less than it did when Massachusetts’ most recent minimum wage hike was signed into law. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, it took nearly $18 in November 2022 to buy what $15 bought in June 2018.

If an organized push for another Massachusetts hike commences, it’s likely to be opposed by the same business groups that voiced skepticism the last time around. That includes the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, whose president, Jon Hurst, said many businesses are already paying above the minimum wage for entry-level workers.

“I think inflation is taking care of the issue of minimum wage mandates,” Hurst said. “The reality is, you would be hard pressed to find a whole lot … of employers that will be starting, on Jan. 1, anyone at just $15, with the exception of perhaps a teenager.”

For many employers, Hurst added, “Profitability has totally evaporated. Their costs of operations have risen substantially. … Early 2023 could indeed be a very challenging time. We may indeed be entering a period of recession, where we will see some jobs eliminated and a lot of small businesses close their doors.”

Another minimum wage increase would test the new dynamics on Beacon Hill, where Democrat Maura Healey is poised to replace Republican Charlie Baker as governor and where House Speaker Ron Mariano has displayed more progressive instincts than his predecessors.

On Wednesday, Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for Healey, suggested in a statement to GBH News that the governor-elect is open to changing the minimum wage status quo.

“Governor-elect Healey is a strong supporter of paying workers a fair wage and believes the state minimum wage should be adjusted over time to keep up with the cost of living,” Hand said in an email. “She will review any legislation that reaches her desk.”

Mariano was more measured, saying via a spokesperson: “If a bill is filed next session that proposes an increase to the commonwealth’s minimum wage, the House will review it through the formal legislative process.”

A spokesperson for Senate President Karen Spilka said she would review any relevant legislation that comes before that chamber, adding: “She has long supported both workers and employers and is committed to making sure Massachusetts is a thriving place to live and work.”

Adam Reilly is a reporter at GBH-TV’s Greater Boston.