Minimum wage hike bill clears Senate panel

DOVER — A $15 minimum wage took a small step toward becoming reality Wednesday when a Senate panel released to the full chamber legislation phasing in an increase of more than 60 percent over the current level.

Despite the prevailing sentiment in the room, members of the Senate Labor Committee voted to advance House Bill 105 for a vote before the entire Senate.

While the bill still has a long way to go, that fact is likely small consolation for the many people who testified in opposition to the proposal Wednesday.

House Bill 105 would increase the minimum wage, which is currently $8.75, to $11 on Jan. 1, just three months after it increases to $9.25 under legislation approved last year. But it wouldn’t stop at $11.

If the proposal passes, the wage floor would climb to $12 in 2021, $13 in 2022 and $14 in 2023 before hitting $15 in 2024. The bill would also tie the minimum wage to a federal inflation indicator starting in 2025.

Thirty-six people spoke in the committee hearing, with 29 of them voicing opposition to the increase. Citing higher prices, business closures and the layoffs they said would inevitably follow such a drastic hike, Delawarean after Delawarean urged senators to vote down the bill.

“I started my career at minimum wage in my training. I earned two professional licenses, three college degrees,” Robert Overmiller told the committee. “When I was forced to retire three years because of medical conditions, I was making $69 in an hour because I worked to get there. It was not handed to me by raising the minimum wage.”

Opponents, nearly all of whom represent businesses or nonprofits, emphasized repeatedly the increase may benefit some people but would hurt many more — including the low-wage earners the bill is intended to help.

Spectators watch the committee hearing.

Another common refrain heard Wednesday was that the increase would mean fewer teenagers are able to get experience in a work environment because businesses would opt instead to hire older individuals who need less training, with opponents of the bill arguing most people making minimum wage are high school- or college-age students.

“I guarantee you I was not worth $15 an hour as a 16-year-old,” Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican, said.

While the exact number of minimum wage workers in Delaware — and who those earners are — is hard to come by, Leo Gertner, an attorney for the National Employment Law Project, said about 145,000 individuals in the state are earning less than $15 an hour.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, no full-time state employee in the executive branch makes minimum wage.

Sixteen states currently have a minimum wage higher than $9.25, while four more have approved phased-in increases that will see their wage floors surpass Delaware’s. Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, California and Washington D.C. are transitioning to a $15 minimum wage over the next few years.

A push for a $15 minimum wage has gained traction recently, in part due to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.

Companies like Amazon and Target are instituting or have already put in place a $15 minimum wage, while in Delaware, Christiana Care recently did so.

The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009.

Backers say raising the wage floor would enable more people to live off one job. In response to protests about the impact such an increase would have on the economy, they argue much of the bump would go back into the economy in the form of people buying more goods and services.

“It assists us in reducing poverty, strengthening families and growing the middle class,” Sen. Darius Brown, a Wilmington Democrat who is the bill’s main sponsor, said.

Linda Barnett, a representative of the League of Women Voters, said a person would have to work 87 hours a week at the current minimum wage to afford a one-bedroom rental house in the First State.

Others sought to refute claims that few minimum wage earners are trying to provide for a family.

“This opposition is not rooted in facts but in ideology,” said Daisy Cruz, the district leader for the Service Employees International Union 32BJ.

At $9.25 an hour, an individual working 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year would earn $19,240. Fifteen dollars an hour translates to $31,200 annually.

Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, supports a higher minimum wage but has some concerns about the structure of bill, specifically the schedule for phasing in increases.

“The key is to do it in a way that’s not disruptive to the labor market,” he said last week.

Only eight regularly scheduled legislative days remain this year, creating quite a time crunch for supporters of the bill. With that tight schedule, the odds of the measure becoming law by the time the legislature breaks at the end of June are basically nil even though Democrats control both chambers.

Sen. Trey Paradee, a Dover Democrat, became the first member of the Senate majority to break with the party line last week by saying he does not back the bill.

That decision means each of the remaining 11 members of the Senate majority caucus would have to vote for the proposal if it is to pass the upper chamber. And even if that happens, the legislation would still have to get through the House.

In the meantime, business and nonprofit executives will keep making their push to lawmakers, hoping to prevent what they say will be catastrophic consequences should the measure become law.

“We’ve had this debate in this chamber many, many times,” said Scott Kidner, a lobbyist representing the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce. “A question brought forth is when is a good time, the right time. I’d argue, Mr. Chairman, never.

“This is about setting a price that is arbitrary. Why is 15, why is it not 12.25, why is it not 13, why is it not 22? All those numbers do not reflect the work that employee is doing. It’s just a number you all will pass to the business owners.”

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

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