The Connecticut Labor and Public Employees Committee held a crowded public hearing at the State Capitol Tuesday to discuss legislation that would increase the minimum wage and punish employers more seriously for wage theft.
The Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance (CIRA), along with grassroots advocacy group Unidad Latina en Accion and undergraduate social justice organization MEChA de Yale journeyed to Hartford as a delegation to testify at the hearing. The activists shared their experiences over the years supporting the rights of workers being paid at and under minimum wage.
The main bill under discussion was Senate Bill 32, labeled the “Governor’s Bill,” which would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 in 2017. Megan Fountain, a ULA organizer, said the legislation is part of a larger national movement to increase the minimum wage.
“This is our opportunity to lead the nation for the right reason — with the highest minimum wage — and let it be known that Connecticut values its workers by providing them with the dignity of a decent wage,” Gov. Dannel Malloy said in written testimony submitted to the committee.
However helpful the bill might prove to the state’s 70,000-90,000 minimum-wage workers, SB-32 freezes the pay rate for tipped workers at 63.2 percent of the minimum wage. Activists say this omission would leave them vulnerable to unfair labor practices, even if the wage were to be raised.
Vicente Ocaña, a server for a local catering company, said it is common practice for employers to pocket employees’ tips to boost profits. His company charges its clients a 19 percent gratuity on top of the bill — supposedly for the servers — but no matter how much that amounts to, the company, which he declined to name, pays them a flat hourly “tip credit” of seven dollars. The company, which Yale regularly hires, pockets the difference, he said.
If the bill were to pass, Ocaña’s base pay, which is a fraction of the minimum wage, would increase by $.40.
“The company is making a profit from our tips,” Ocaña said. “If the legislation would change it would be a big step for us. I work hard and support five kids — we can’t live off of 13 dollars an hour.”
Activists are advocating for SB-32 to raise the base pay for tipped workers to a higher percentage of the minimum wage. Ten states require employers to pay proportionately higher wages to servers than Connecticut.
Another bill under discussion at the hearing was House Bill 5071, which increases sanctions on employers who are found to be paying their employees under the minimum wage. The bill would allow workers to sue their employers for double what they are owed and for more than two years in backpay.
In her testimony, MEChA president Evelyn Nuñez ’15 cited her involvement in the Gourmet Heaven wage theft investigation, which found that owner Chung Cho had been stealing wages from workers at the popular campus deli. Though workers testified that they had been paid under minimum wage for up to a decade, they could only claim back wages for the past two years under current Department of Labor (DOL) policy.
“The fine is so small that it doesn’t stop employers from committing wage theft,” Fountain said. “The DOL intervenes but businesses keep flaunting the law. Even if workers can recover wages, they only get a fraction of what they are owed. If employers faced steeper consequences they would think twice.”
While most testimony delivered at the hearing favored the bills to improve workers’ pay, some representatives from various corporations and associations testified that the bills would instead put businesses and workers at risk by overburdening employers and resulting in personnel cuts.
“In reality, minimum wage increases hurt the poor because they end up paying the increased prices for goods and services businesses have had to make to adjust for the rising minimum wage,” said Eric Gedje of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, which represents over 10,000 companies in the state.
President of the Connecticut Food Association Stan Sorkin, speaking for about 300 retail food stores, said another minimum wage raise would amount to another “tax” and would make Connecticut “uncompetitive” in attracting businesses.
Though numerous minimum wage and tipped workers accompanied the delegation, some had to leave before they were asked to testify, as the hearing was packed and moved slowly. Activists and workers interviewed were not called to speak until seven hours after the hearing began.
Fountain said she was displeased by how inaccessible the hearing was to people who were not in the capitol regularly, as those who planned to testify had to register in person the day before.
Nunez said committee members seemed supportive of the bills, judging by their responses. If the committee approves the labor bills, they will move to the full general assembly, and then onto the Governor’s desk.
“There has been a widening gap in Connecticut for several decades, so these bills on the table were long overdue,” Fountain said.
The first increment in the minimum wage is proposed to take place on Jan. 1, 2015, boosting the minimum wage from $8.75 to $9.15.