‘Everybody deserves a living wage’: $12 is the new minimum

  • Booklink Booksellers owner Gabriel Moushabeck, right, gets a nudge from his son, Ramzi Moushabeck, helping out in the Northampton store during his break from Plymouth College on Friday. Ramzi was just six months old in 1997 when Moushabeck opened his shop in Thornes Marketplace. Moushabeck said he is in favor of increasing the minimum wage but also said that, unlike some retailers, book stores are not able to make up that cost through an increase in their product’s prices as the list prices are set by the publishers. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jarred Powers, an employee at State Street Fruit Store in Northampton, talks about the 2019 increase in the Massachusetts minimum wage on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nate Clifford, general manager at Cornucopia Foods in Northampton, talks about the minimum wage hike Friday at the Thornes Marketplace store. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nate Clifford, general manager at Cornucopia Foods in Northampton talks about the 2019 increase in the Massachusetts minimum wage on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018, at the Thornes Marketplace store. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Booklink Booksellers owner Gabriel Moushabeck talks about the 2019 increase in the Massachusetts minimum wage on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018, at his store in Thornes Marketplace in Northampton. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jarred Powers, an employee at State Street Fruit Store in Northampton, talks about the 2019 increase in the Massachusetts minimum wage on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer 
Published: 12/29/2018 12:06:16 AM

NORTHAMPTON — New year, better pay. 2019 will bring higher wages for Massachusetts workers. On Jan. 1, the minimum wage will increase from $11 to $12 an hour.

Twenty percent of the state’s workforce will see a boost in their wages in 2019, according to an analysis by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center

Signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in June, the so-called “Grand Bargain” law gradually increases the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2023, along with creating a paid family and medical leave program. 

Through the program, workers can take 20 weeks of paid personal medical leave and 12 weeks of leave to help a sick family member.

The legislation also increases base wages for tipped workers from $3.75 to $4.35 in 2019, an incremental step to reaching $6.75 by 2023; creates a holiday sales tax weekend every August; and phases out mandated time-and-a-half pay for Sundays that applies to some businesses.

Lindsay Sabadosa, state representative-elect, helped collect signatures for Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of labor unions and community and religious organizations. While she is excited to see the increase go into effect, the Sunday time-and-a-half elimination is a flaw, she said.

“I think the Grand Bargain was wonderful in a lot of ways, but that was one thing that took us backwards,” she said.

She expects and supports legislation that would restore time-and-a-half pay for Sundays to be filed next session. 

Northampton businesses, workers respond 

Gabriel Moushabeck, owner of Booklink Bookstore and Café, supports the increase. “There’s no doubt in my mind it will affect small businesses,” he said. “I am for increasing the minimum wage because I know how difficult it is to make ends meet.” 

Some workers in the store will see an increase in wages due to the law, Moushabeck said.

Book sales make up the vast majority of the business’s revenue. There are ways to offset costs of wage increases, Moushabeck said, but he can’t increase the cost of books because he can’t charge more than the price publishers set.

He could sell items other than books, but he’s hoping he won’t have to.

The independent bookstore, which has operated inside Thornes Marketplace for 21 years, has paid workers more than minimum wage in past years when it was possible, according to Moushabeck.

“Things have become more difficult for us,” he said, pointing to stiff competition from online retailers, such as Amzon, and bigger chain bookstores. Moushabeck has seen customers come in, look at books and then buy them online on their cellphone while still standing in the store. “How can you compete with that?” he asked.

The increasing minimum wage was one of many factors in the closure of Modern Myths Comic Books and Games last May, said Melissa Lewis-Gentry, the store’s former business manager.

When contemplating closing the store, Lewis-Gentry did a two-year forecast with help from the U.S. Small Business Administration and found sales would have to rise considerably to keep up with wages. “The projected increase would have to have been astronomical to pay wages,” she explained.

She still supports the wage increases, even if some small businesses are negatively impacted.

“I’m a firm believer, if business cannot afford to pay its workers, that business has no business in existing,” she said.

One local business went in a different direction and is embracing the change and bumping the lowest wages straight to $15 per hour in 2019.

Tim Fisk, owner of Salon Herdis, compared it to ripping off a Band-Aid — better to do it all at once.

“It was going to happen anyway over the next four years,” he said, “Let’s just get this going now.”

It’s also a matter of values, he said. “Everybody deserves a living wage.”

The wage bump will cost roughly $40,000 a year, so he’s planning to add $1 to $5 onto some hair services starting in the new year.

Nate Clifford, general manager of Cornucopia, is also hoping to stay ahead of schedule; he said that the lowest wages for the store’s 26 employees will reach $15 an hour before 2023.

Mike Natale, a manager of State Street Fruit Store, said the business is planning to keep raises for employees who previously earned them. A new hire making the same amount as an experienced employee who earned a raise over time could be seen as unfair, he said.

“We want to keep employees happy,” he said.

Jarred Powers, a Holyoke Community College student from Northampton, has been working at the store since last March. He started at minimum wage and got a raise a few months ago to $11.50 per hour.

The minimum wage increase will be helpful, Powers said, but he also worries that an increase in wages will inflate other costs of living, and he’ll end up needing to spend the extra wages.

Ana Steb, who works at Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters on Main Street, is excited for the wage increase in the new year and to eventually reach $15 per hour, but echoed Powers’ concerns.

“I think with minimum wage increases, everything else goes up,” she said, “so we’ll see.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

This story contains reporting from the Associated Press.

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