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 1 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 2 and 3 here.
Amidst ambitious union efforts to raise fast food workers’ minimum wage to $15 an hour and President Obama’s endorsement of a bill to raise the national minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, Connecticut workers and labor advocates are not satisfied with the relatively small raise they received from the state at the beginning of the year.
Workers said the raise, amounting to $18 extra at the end of a full-time workweek, is still not enough to cover basic expenses.
“I didn’t even notice the increase. I got basically the same check,” said Darin Johnson, who has been an employee at A-1 Pizzeria on Broadway for two years. “For my bills and rent, $8.70 is not good enough; I have to work a lot of hours.” Freddy Zepeda, another employee at A-1, added, “It was the same to me, after taxes and expenses. It’s a tiny help but not enough.”
The living wage in New Haven is $10.90 an hour for an independent adult, $2.20 over the current minimum wage, based on calculations by MIT researchers using government and survey data. For workers supporting a family of more than two, the current minimum wage falls below the living wage according to the study.
Mark Colville, a founder of the community service organization Amistad Catholic Worker, said many of the people who rely on the meals they provide twice a day have minimum wage jobs and are working full time, but still do not have enough money to feed themselves.
“From time to time we get a tiny bone thrown to the working person, but it’s hardly keeping up with the needs of the workers,” he said. “So many working people might as well not be working. They’re eating in soup kitchens and living in shelters.”
The boost, however, makes the state’s new minimum wage the third-highest in the country, behind only Vermont and Washington. When the rate goes up one more increment to $9 next January, it will surpass Vermont for second place.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which is in effect in 29 states.
“On one hand we have to recognize we’re doing better than the rest of the country,” said John Lugo, a member of the New Haven Workers’ Association. “At the same time, you know you cannot survive with only nine bucks an hour, especially in Connecticut, which is a very expensive state.”
He added that the raised wage comes in tandem with heightened costs housing, transportation and food, so the increase is not high enough and it is rising too slowly.
Lugo said the lobbying efforts that pressured the state to raise the minimum wage, which he was involved in, were opposed by large business lobbyists who claimed that such an increase would hurt the economy and raise prices.
But the manager of Tomatillo on Broadway, Sherif Farouk, said the exact opposite has proved to be true. Workers at the popular taco joint have always made above minimum wage.
“The more we pay, the more they spend, the better the economy gets. It’s never going to harm a business to pay workers good wages,” he said. “Connecticut is an expensive state and raising the minimum wage was a good idea for the economy of the state.”
Farouk added that if the minimum wage goes up to the level labor advocates call for, $14-15 an hour, business owners would have to start covering for lost profits by raising prices.
Zepeda said that jobs that pay over the minimum wage in the service industry are scarce — because of the recession, it is currently an employers’ market.
“The economy is bad so it’s impossible to find a job where you can make more,” he said.
This year, the minimum wages of New York and New Jersey went up to $8 and $8.25 an hour respectively.