Editorial: Legislators must act on wages, paid leave

  • The Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Supporters of proposals to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and guarantee paid family and medical leave for workers said this week that they have enough signatures to get both questions on the Massachusetts ballot in 2018.

While we believe that both measures have merit, we also recognize that taken together they would have a major impact on businesses. Ballot questions often fail to consider all the ramifications of complex issues. That is why we support legislation to again raise the minimum wage and establish family leave, rather than referendums.

We urge the Legislature to take up both issues early in 2018 and carefully craft a plan that will satisfy supporters of the minimum wage and family leave proposals, as well as the state’s business community.

We also believe that the Legislature must work next year to keep off the ballot proposals to reduce the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax to either 5 percent or 4.5 percent. While that might be popular with voters, we believe there are other ways to help retailers in Massachusetts than a measure that would have a significant impact on the state’s budget.

Those are among the ballot initiatives certified by the state attorney general, who approved 21 of the 28 petitions submitted in August. Certification means that the measures meet the legal requirements to advance toward the ballot, but it is not an endorsement by the attorney general. The next step is to file at least 64,750 signatures from registered voters with the secretary of state’s office by Wednesday.

Measures meeting that requirement then go to the Legislature for action before May 2. If the Legislature fails to act by then, supporters have about two months to collect another 10,792 signatures to get the initiatives on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Raise Up Massachusetts is the coalition of labor unions, community groups and religious organizations backing the higher minimum wage and paid family leave. Co-chair Deb Fastino says, “Nobody should be paid so little they can’t afford basic necessities, and no one should have to choose between working at the job they need to pay the bills and caring for themselves or the family they love in a time of crisis.”

The Legislature in 2014 approved a three-stage increase in the hourly minimum wage from $8 to $11. The proposed ballot question would raise it again in annual $1 increments between 2019 and 2022 to $15 an hour.

The paid leave measure would guarantee up to 16 weeks off to care for a seriously ill or injured family member, or a new baby. Workers on leave would get 90 percent of their average weekly pay, up to $1,000. The benefits would be paid from a Family and Employment Security Trust Fund administered by the state, with contributions by employers and workers.

Business groups such as Associated Industries of Massachusetts, oppose both ballot questions. “AIM opposes efforts to mandate a $15 per hour minimum wage and paid family leave,” says Chris Geerhan, its executive vice president of marketing and communications. “Both represent simplistic, one-size-fits-all approaches that will irreparably harm the economy without solving the income issues they are meant to address.”

Last week, state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, who is on leave as Senate president, urged caution, pointing out that both measures would have significant costs. “Putting them on (the ballot) at the same time means you have to proceed with extreme care,” he said. “The economy needs time to adjust to such increments” in increasing the minimum wage.

Rosenberg also said he hopes the Legislature will address concerns of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which backs the reduced sales tax. Each 1 percent of the sales tax represents about $1 billion in revenue, according to an aide to Rosenberg.

The Senate will be informed by its Task Force on Strengthening Massachusetts Local Retail, which is charged with reporting by May on challenges faced by local retailers in competing against e-commerce.

The goals of fairly compensating workers and allowing them to spend time with newborns or other family members who need care are laudable. They must be balanced with an environment that allows retailers and other businesses to remain competitive in Massachusetts without adversely affecting the state’s budget. Legislation, rather than ballot questions, is the better way to achieve that.