Minimum wage reaches $13 as state hopes to end worker shortage

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Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chairwoman of the legislative Labor Committee.

Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chairwoman of the legislative Labor Committee.

Carol Kaliff / Hearst Connecticut Media

With the latest bump this week in the minimum wage, Connecticut is now more than halfway toward the $15 per hour, up from the $10.10 of 2019.

As many as 200,000 low-wage workers will see the latest increase to $13 an hour in their next checks, according to the state Department of Labor. And for employers, it’s the cost of doing business, particularly during the stiff competition for workers in the lingering pandemic.

“We’ve known for a couple years that employees were going to get another dollar an hour,” said Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, representing the state’s grocers and supermarkets. “Look, there’s been a lot going on around this conversation nationally, so we’re following Massachusetts and New York and California. Many retailers have gone to the $15 wage already nationally. We’re at this point where we need to be.”

The multi-phase 2019 law boosted the $10.10 per-hour pay to $11 on Oct. 1 of that year. On Sept. 1, 2020, it rose to $12. Next July 1 it will rise to $14, then finally $15 on June 1, 2023. After Jan. 1, 2024, wage increases will be linked to the quarterly federal employment cost index, a survey of national pay scales. Restaurant and bar workers who rely on tips are not fully included in the wage rollout.

For state Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chairwoman of the legislative Labor & Public Employees Committee, it’s the eventual link to the federal survey that’s the crucial part of the 2019 legislation, because future pay hikes will be taken out of the hands of state lawmakers and politics.

“I think the fact that it is indexed is very important,” Kushner said in a phone interview Monday, recalling that when the legislation was debated in the General Assembly in 2019, including a 14-hour overnight debate in the House of Representatives, there were about 330,000 workers in the state paid less than $15 an hour. “That’s changed over the last couple of years.” The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of lower-wage workers, she said.

“Over the last year and a half we saw that workers are critical to our survival, whether they worked in the supermarket, service plaza or nursing homes, many of these people were working for the minimum wage,” Kushner said. “I really appreciate what they have done for us. Of course, the closer we get to $15, the more we realize that it’s not enough, but I’m very happy we’re moving in that direction.”

“Nobody working a full-time job should live in poverty,” Gov. Ned Lamont said in a statement over the weekend. “For too long, while the nation’s economy grew, the income of the lowest earning workers has stayed flat, making already existing pay disparities even worse and preventing hardworking families from obtaining financial security. This is a fair, modest increase, and the money earned by workers will go right back into our own economy, supporting local businesses and our communities.”

Danté Bartolomeo, a former state senator who is the interim commissioner of the state Department of Labor, said Monday while the exact number of people affected by the wage increase cannot be determined because the state does not collect wage rates and hours for all state workers, federal statistics show that between 150,000 and 200,000 will directly benefit.

“This is one more positive step toward equity under Gov. Lamont’s leadership,” she said in a statement Monday.

With inaction on the issue in Congress, the national minimum wage has remained at $7.25 since 2009. Under the current state law, minors (under age 18) may be employed at 85 percent of the minimum wage for the first 90 days of their employment.

Pesce said that he hopes the higher pay will mean more people will return to the job market, as a variety of employers, from grocers to restaurants, retailers and manufacturers, are desperately looking for workers. “If the wage increase helps with that decision, it’s all for the better,” Pesce said in a phone interview. “We need people to get back to work. Maybe it needs to rise in order to motivate people to come back.”

Keith B. Bishop, president of the sixth generation Bishop’s Orchards Farm Market & Winery in Guilford, who in 2019 asked state lawmakers for a longer phase-in, said Monday that the COVID pandemic has drastically changed the state’s employment conversation.

“The minimum wage is almost a misnomer now,” Bishop said, stressing that businesses are competing for help that is scarce. “Like most employers, we paid bonus wages last year,” Bishop said in a phone interview. It’s all part of the calculus he and other farmers need to make to plan for crop yields and prices they can charge in the marketplace.

“The first jobs that kids have here, paying them a higher wage than they may be able to output, means employers may have to train without knowing how long they’ll stay,” Bishop said. “The economic impact of COVID here has taken away the minimum wage as a real factor in what we’re paying people.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT