March 27, 2013

House Democrats pass bill to hike minimum wage

By Steve Mistler
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — The House gave initial approval Wednesday to a bill that would increase the minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2016 and have it rise incrementally with inflation thereafter. 

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The bill, which failed to receive a single Republican vote, aligns with a national effort among Democrats initiated with President Obama’s State of the Union address. In his speech, the president called for raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour to increase the earning and purchasing power of low-income Americans and help lift them into the middle class.

Republicans have opposed the effort both nationally and in Maine, saying such measures are well-intentioned, but ineffective at reducing poverty and potentially harmful to small-business owners.

Both arguments were made Wednesday in the House before L.D. 611 advanced on a 86-58 party-line vote. Biddeford Rep. Alan Casavant was the only Democrat to oppose the measure.

The bill had passed along party lines in the Legislature’s Labor Committee as well. It was supported by worker advocates and labor unions and opposed by several small-business groups, including the organization representing Maine’s restaurant owners.

People who earn minimum wage in Maine – currently $7.50 an hour – typically work in the retail, service and hospitality industries, said David Clough, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

In Portland, most if not all restaurants pay their employees above minimum wage, said Steve DiMillo, whose family owns Maine’s largest restaurant, DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant in Portland. He said all of his hourly workers already make at least $9 an hour, so they wouldn’t be helped by the proposed increase.

In an interview, DiMillo said he is disappointed by the House vote because the bill would give raises to the restaurant’s highest-paid workers, the wait staff, who by law are paid half of the minimum wage, plus tips. When tips are added, they earn $17 to $27 an hour, he said.

A higher hourly wage for wait staff would increase his payroll by nearly $40,000 annually, DiMillo said. That means he’d have less money available for giving raises to lower-wage hourly workers in the kitchen.

“The hourly people – they’re the ones who won’t get a raise,” he said.

Maisie DeGoosh, 22, a barista at a Portland coffee shop, said she supports the bill because many people don’t appreciate how hard it is to work in a low-wage service job. Although DeGoosh now earns above the minimum wage, she previously worked for minimum wage at a different coffee shop.

“It doesn’t make much sense that people who work that hard shouldn’t be compensated for that,” she said.

The bill would phase in the wage increase, to $8 an hour in 2014, $8.50 in 2015 and $9 an hour in 2016. The inflation indexing would begin in 2017.

About 20,000 Maine workers were paid either at or below minimum wage in 2011, according to the state Department of Labor.

Maine is one of 18 states with a minimum wage above the current federal minimum of $7.25, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. However, 23 other states are weighing legislation to increase the minimum, according to a Feb. 13 assessment by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Maine’s median hourly wage for all occupations was $15.63 in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Labor .

Raising the minimum to $9 would yield a gross annual income of $18,720 for an individual working 40 hours for 52 weeks.

The legislation dovetails with efforts by congressional Democrats, some of whom want to take Obama’s directive a step further. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., are co-sponsoring legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016 and index it to inflation. But the bill is unlikely to go far in the Republican-controlled House.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Minimum wage

Should Maine increase the minimum wage to $9 an hour?



View Results