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Guest: Low Wage Workers Need A Raise

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The time is long overdue to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts. The state Senate last year passed a bill that would increase the minimum wage over time from the current $8 per hour up to $11 per hour. It would also increase the minimum wage for so called “tipped employees” such as waiters, waitresses and bar tenders from the current $2.63 per hour to $8.00 per hour. Both amounts would be indexed for inflation in the future under the bill passed by the Senate.

Recent newspaper articles have indicated that the House of Representatives is contemplating passage of its own version of an increase, but it would be linked(directly or indirectly) to a cut in unemployment benefits.

A recent posting on the website for the Associated Industries if Massachusetts, a business lobbying group, boasted that the benefit cut they are demanding from the House would reduce Massachusetts corporations’ costs by $100 million. That’s money that will come directly out of the pockets of hardworking people temporarily out of work through no fault of their own.

The current minimum wage is a subpoverty-level wage. Many of our hardworking neighbors need to work two and sometimes three minimum wage jobs in order to make ends meet. It should not be necessary for people to work 80 hours or more week in and week out just to stay marginally above the poverty line. Work for a reasonable number of weekly hours should pay enough to live on.

Holding those low wage workers legislatively hostage for the purpose of forcing through draconian cuts in unemployment benefits is unacceptable.

For too many years now, the Legislature has given the business community huge breaks by voting to interrupt the Unemployment Insurance rate schedule that businesses pay into. This has undermined the forward-funding principle of the UI system. The Legislature has interrupted the schedule in 18 of the past 20 years, thus depleting the UI Trust Fund. 

Now the House leadership proposes to “pay” for this deliberate underfunding of the UI Trust Fund by cutting benefits at the time they are needed most. Calling this proposal “reform” or “streamlining” can not obfuscate the fact that less is truly less for those unemployed workers, who are even more in need than the underpaid.

Unraveling a vital part of the social safety net that UI provides makes no sense. It saves state government nothing. The fund is supported by premiums paid by businesses. Underfunding the Trust Fund as the Legislature has been doing, on the other hand, can cause the taxpayers to pay for the debt service costs when the state is forced to borrow to pay workers their earned benefits. 

Cutting UI benefits also takes needed money out of the economy. Almost all that money is spent at the very businesses demanding this shortsighted alleged reform.

Doing this as part of a cynical political maneuver to pit the working poor against the unemployed in order to serve the interests of a business community that has enjoyed so much legislative largesse over the past 20 years would be, frankly, reprehensible.  Call your state representative. Urge him/her to pass a “clean” increase in the minimum wage without cutting or restricting access to unemployment insurance benefits.• 

Ed Collins, a Democratic candidate for state representative for the 9th Hampden district, is an international representative of the IBEW and executive vice president of the Mass. AFL/CIO.

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