The Massachusetts State House heard two bills on Tuesday to increase the minimum wage to $15 and mandate paid family and medical leave in the state.
Raise Up Massachusetts, an alliance of community, faith and labor organizations, collected over 274,000 signatures in favor of higher minimum wage and paid family and medical leave to be represented in a ballot question, said Andrew Farnitano, a spokesperson for Raise Up Massachusetts.
During the hearing Tuesday, the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development listened to several parties with a stake in the bills being considered in the state legislature.
The committee has until June to consider whether to approve the legislation as it stands or to offer modified versions of the proposed bills, which must be approved by Raise Up Massachusetts, Farnitano said. If the legislature fails to act on the existing legislation by then, the initiatives will be on the ballot this upcoming November.
The bill to raise the minimum wage seeks to increase the current minimum wage from $11 to $15 over a four-year period. Thereafter, the minimum wage will change based on the cost of living, said Harris Gruman, executive director at Service Employees International Union.
“So if the cost of living goes up, the wage would go up so we wouldn’t need to do this all the time,” Gruman said. “We could actually just have it go up in a predictable and reasonable way with the cost of living.”
Edlyn Thompson-Mettle, 34, of Allston, said she supports an increased minimum wage to close the wealth disparity in Boston.
“I think it’s about time,” Thompson-Mettle said. “There’s large wealth disparity in the city of Boston that honestly, I think that if you’re on the wealthier side, you don’t know, or you don’t understand.”
Arthur MacEwan, an professor emeritus of economics at University of Massachusetts Boston, who testified at the last hearing for higher minimum wage legislation in September, said business owners have largely been opposed to a higher minimum wage because they are worried about being undercut by other businesses that have lower wage rates. However, MacEwan said there are more benefits than costs with a higher minimum wage.
“Officials of firms that oppose this legislation are very short-sighted in that they don’t recognize the benefits that come to them with higher wages,” MacEwan said. “This includes much lower turnover [and] much more loyalty of employees. Employees tend to become more productive when their wages go up in this manner.”
Susan Crandall, director of the Center for Social Policy at UMass Boston, said the long-term effects of a higher minimum wage on families’ public benefits must be considered moving forward.
“We need to be concerned about cliff effects — what happens when an increase in earned income results in the loss of key public benefits, like housing or childcare,” Crandall said. “Public policy shifts need to occur concurrently with wage increases, so that vulnerable families are not negatively impacted in the process.”
The bill instituting paid family and medical leave would allow employees to have paid time off to recover from a serious illness or injury and take care of a gravely ill family member or new child. Employers would not be able to penalize an employee for taking this type of leave of absence.
Farnitano said paid family and medical leave is important because parents need time to care for their children in their early stages, and family emergencies arise in most people’s lives.
Although businesses have been concerned about having to pay for extensive employee absences, employees’ salaries would be covered by the state, Farnitano said.
“A business that’s invested a lot in a worker doesn’t want to lose them and replace them anytime a family emergency happens, but with this paid family and medical leave program workers would be able to go out on leave through the insurance program set up in the ballot question,” Farnitano said. “The business would be able to save money by not having to pay than employee while they are out.”
Nick McMahon, 24, of East Boston, said he supports the funding model for paid medical and family leave.
“Paid medical and family leave is incredibly important because employees, as well as businesses, shouldn’t be penalized,” McMahon said. “Emergencies and child births are bound happen, and we need to give people the security of knowing they won’t lose their job, and we need to help businesses with those costs. It’s only fair.”
Mayur Tarmale, 24, of Back Bay, said there may be unintended negative consequences for paid medical leave.
“In a sense it’s good as well as bad,” Tarmale said. “If there is really a medical emergency and you can’t go to work or something, it’s good. But few people might take advantage of this and tell lies about their medical emergencies or something and take leave and get paid for that as well.”