Legislators make new push to raise state’s minimum wage

DOVER — A Senate committee heard arguments Wednesday on a bill that would raise the state’s minimum wage by $2, the latest attempt by Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, to increase Delaware’s wage floor.

It is expected to be formally released from the Senate Labor Committee today.

The measure’s future beyond that, however, remains hazy, after a vote on a previous bill failed by one vote and the lone Democrat who did not support that proposal said he remains uncertain how he will fall.

Senate Bill 170 would lift Delaware’s minimum wage of $8.25 by 50 cents in four increments, starting Oct. 1 and ending in 2021, when it would be $10.25.

“If we say we care about people, and Delaware always has that thing, the Delaware Way, that we care about our own, then I think this has to be passed,” James Maravelias, president of the AFL-CIO, said.

But most of the people who spoke in the committee strongly opposed the bill, repeating many of the same arguments made in March and in 2016 and 2017, when Democrats pushed a similar proposal.

“These wage rates are not in a vacuum. You set the floor, the market reacts. And you’ve heard from testimony, the market will react,” Scott Kidner said on behalf of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce.

A higher minimum wage will scare businesses away, drive prices up and cause companies to employ fewer workers, opponents said.

State Chamber of Commerce lobbyist James DeChene noted the temporary help and restaurant fields lost 2,700 jobs in 2017, part of a year where unemployment in the First State rose .6 percent.

“I wish Delaware’s economy was growing as fast as surrounding states, but it shows that if we’re losing jobs in the industry you’re looking to support, bills like this don’t do anything to do to help,” he said.

The measure could also seriously impact nonprofits, according to Melissa Hopkins, vice president of sector advancement for the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement. Not-for-profit organizations saw a decrease of about $25 million in funding from last fiscal year to this current one, and having to pay more in labor would lead to them offering fewer services, she told the committee.

Twenty-three states have higher minimum wages than Delaware, which last approved a hike in 2014. That change went into effect in two steps, with the last one in 2015.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Proponents of the increase said the state should allow individuals earning minimum wage to at least keep their heads above water and urged legislators to support Delaware workers.

“If not now, when? When is a good time to raise the minimum wage?” Sen. Jack Walsh, D-Stanton, said.

In response to testimony from Curt Fifer of Fifer Orchards that an increase would seriously hurt the farm, Sen. Marshall said he does not believe “50 cents an hour staged in over a couple of years will have the impact that you describe.”

Mr. Fifer disagreed, explaining the increase would make Delaware’s minimum wage 41 percent higher than the federal level, preventing Fifer Orchards from making its prices comparable to those offered by companies in states like Georgia that use the federal minimum wage.

Several people questioned how many Delawareans are trying to survive on minimum wage, with opponents of the bill arguing most people earning $8.25 an hour are teenagers getting their first job or seniors trying to make a little extra money.

Whether this bill ends up like its predecessor has yet to be determined.

Senate Bill 10, which would have raised the minimum wage to $9.25 in two increments, was defeated 10-9, with one member abstaining and one absent, six weeks ago.

Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, was the only Democrat who did not vote for it, opting to go “not voting” instead.

Afterward, he said his decision was partly shaped by concern a higher minimum would negatively impact Delaware’s three casinos, which have been struggling financially. Legislation to offer relief to the establishments passed the Senate last week and now is in the House.

Sen. Bushweller said Wednesday he is still considering his vote but would be more likely to vote for the minimum wage increase if the casino bill becomes law.

Gov. John Carney supports a $10.25 minimum wage, and the official Delaware Democratic Party platform calls for a $15 wage.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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