Minimum wage reform: Connecticut a model for Democrat wage push

In June 2013, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed into law one of the nation’s highest minimum wages, increasing the state’s wage floor from $8.25 per hour to $9.00 by Jan. 1, 2015. This three-part series looks at the impact this law will have on workers, local businesses and politicians. This is part 2 in a series of articles examining the effect of the wage increase on the people who earn the minimum wage, the employers who are bound to it and the politicians whose political terrain is being shaped by the issue. Read parts 1 and 3 here.  

As Democrats nationwide make maximizing the minimum wage a focal point of the party’s 2014 strategy, 13 states have already revealed the political stakes of that debate in statewide wage hikes that took effect Jan. 1.

Connecticut has emerged as a leader in state-level, incremental wage increases; at the same time, its legislative advances have been along stark partisan lines. No Republicans in either chamber of the Connecticut General Assembly voted for the bill, which passed last summer by a vote of 89-53 in the state House and 21-15 in the Senate.

In a handful of states facing contested congressional elections this year, Democrats are seeking to put minimum wage hikes to referenda, including in Alaska, where advocacy groups have already collected thousands of signatures in support of putting the issue on the ballot. Connecticut lawmakers say further increases in Connecticut’s minimum wage are unlikely, at least until the full 75-cent increase takes effect next year. Martin Looney, the Senate majority leader, said the Democratic caucus sees the minimum wage as a question of “equity and fairness,” not as a strategy designed to catch Republicans in an unpopular position. Two out of three Americans say the minimum wage should increase, according to a December 2013 Washington Post-ABC News poll. The average suggested minimum was $9.41 per hour.

Looney said the ultimate goal is moving toward a figure that more closely resembles a living wage, “a salary that hardworking people can actually use to support themselves.” He said $12 per hour would align more closely with that ideal.

Pat O’Neal, spokesman for the Connecticut House Republicans, said living wage calculations can be as steep as $23 an hour, an impossibly high minimum to enforce. He said most residents working minimum wage jobs are working part-time; they are often students or retirees who are not supporting families, he added. Roughly 70 percent of Conn. residents with minimum wage jobs work more than 20 hours per week, according to Raise the Minimum Wage, a project of the national Employment Law Project.

Further increases in the minimum wage would “nickel and dime people who actually create jobs and provide income to people,” O’Neal said. For that reason, he added, state Republicans are virtually unanimously opposed to raising the wage floor. He said forcing businesses to pay higher salaries would lead to lay-offs that end up harming economic competitiveness as well as the state’s workforce.

O’Neal added that Democrats have latched onto minimum wage as a diversion from the Affordable Care Act, an issue he said threatens their electoral prospects.

“The Democrats certainly want to make this a wedge issue because they’d rather talk about anything but Obamacare,” he said. “This is the issue they want to talk about for the next 11 months: ‘Oh, once again, Republicans are siding with the wealthy and don’t want to help people at the bottom.”

Connecticut’s minimum wage is high compared to minimums in most states and to the national standard, which has remained at $7.25 per hour since 2009. President Barack Obama last November backed the idea of a national $10.10 minimum, a goal Connecticut State Rep. Roland Lemar said the state should seek to meet on its own.

Still, Connecticut trails a handful of states and municipalities, including Washington State at $9.32 per hour. Entirely ahead of the pack is the city of SeaTac, Washington, which increased its minimum wage by referendum last fall to $15 per hour, the steepest required wage in the country. The referendum passed by 50.64 percent — and aspects of it are still being challenged in court, including its application to employees of the Seattle Airport.

Kathryn Campbell, a member of the SeaTac city council, estimated that 1,600 SeaTac residents are taking home more money this month as a result of the wage bump. Even in the heavily Democratic Seattle suburb, she said, the ballot measure was fervently opposed by corporate groups, which are still fighting its provisions in court.

“It’s not an issue of Republican versus Democrat,” Campbell said, adding that positions on the city council are nonpartisan. “It’s more of an issue of people who see the benefit of people having enough to feed their families and get by without public assistance.”

But Connecticut State Rep. Gail Lavielle GRD ’81, a Republican representing the 143rd district in far Southwest Connecticut, said Connecticut’s legislation comes at the wrong time — that the General Assembly failed to take measures to jumpstart the economy before burdening business owners with a wage hike.

In his State of the State address last week, Washington Governor Jay Inslee offered an economic defense of raising wage floors, saying improving wages redounds to the good of the business community.

“There is ample evidence that a raise in that range does not kill jobs. An increase in minimum wage means more money being spent in our economy,” Inslee said. “It won’t be a number that remedies 50 years of income inequality. But I believe that an increase in the range of $1.50 to $2.50 an hour is a step toward closing the widening economic gap.”

21 states have wage floors higher than the national minimum.

Comments