Senate leader: Mass. needs to debate living wageBy BOB SALSBERG , Associated Press
Apr. 11, 2013 2:51 PM ET
BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts needs to have a conversation about what constitutes a living wage, Senate President Therese Murray told business leaders Thursday.
In a breakfast speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Plymouth Democrat noted that lawmakers in Maine recently approved a bill that would raise the state's minimum wage to $9 per hour by 2016, adjusting it annually for inflation after that. The bill has yet to be signed into law.
In Massachusetts, the minimum wage has been $8 per hour since 2008 and isn't automatically adjusted to inflation.
Murray also pointed to New York, which recently agreed to raise its minimum wage to $9 over the next three years, without tying future increases to inflation. Other cities have passed their own citywide minimum wages that are indexed to inflation, she said.
"By identifying what a living wage is in Massachusetts, we can have a positive impact on families, and especially single parents who are trying to improve the lives of their children," Murray said.
In the speech, Murray also said it's time to take another look at the state's welfare system, saying if often discourages recipients from pursuing independence and includes loopholes "that continue to serve as incentives for individuals to stay on welfare instead of working."
Murray did not specify what she thought the state's minimum wage should be, nor did she whether it should be indexed to inflation. She told reporters after the address that she hoped the Legislature could pass some type of bill by the end of the year.
Her call for a discussion of the minimum wage drew polite but scattered applause from the audience. Many business and manufacturing groups have been resistant to changing to law, saying it would add to labor costs and make the state less attractive to some employers.
The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 and only a handful of states — including Connecticut and Vermont — have a higher minimum wage than Massachusetts.
"Most employers pay not only at but above the minimum wage," said Paul Guzzi, president of the chamber, adding that he believed the business community would be open to discussion about the minimum wage if it were tied to other reforms that would lower costs for business.
Guzzi singled out unemployment insurance rates, which remain among the highest in the nation despite having been frozen by the Legislature for the past four years. Murray, in her speech, said she hoped lawmakers would tackle the unemployment insurance system in the current session, perhaps by rewarding companies that have avoided major layoffs and addressing the unique needs of the tourism industry that relies heavily on seasonal employees.
Murray called on the state's welfare agency, the Department of Transitional Assistance, to shift its focus to training, education, and job placement for welfare recipients while offering additional help to teen parents and "high-risk" recipients.
The Senate president, citing a federal report showing that nearly 60 percent of Massachusetts residents live paycheck to paycheck, said Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal to raise the income tax to 6.25 percent would only make it harder for low- and middle-income people to make ends meet.
"The people who clean our (Statehouse) offices at night ... they're working three jobs, and they have children," Murray said after the speech. "I see how hard they work and it just breaks your heart that they can't have time with their kids."
During a recent visit to the Springfield YMCA, Murray said some mothers told her that it was easier for them to stay on welfare than go to work, because a job would often pay less than welfare benefits.
Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc contributed to this report.