GREENFIELD — Comedian Chris Rock once said minimum wage is your boss’s way of saying, “Hey, if I could pay you less, I would. But it’s against the law.”
Well, state law has increased the minimum wage from $10 per hour to $11, having taken effect Sunday. This means Massachusetts, along with Washington state, now have the highest minimum wages in the nation. This jump is the final of three $1 increases required by 2014 legislation that brought the state’s minimum wage up from $8 over three years.
Advocates say this is a victory for entry-level workers, while some business owners fear hikes like this are unsustainable and will lead to higher prices for customers.
According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, increasing the minimum wage to $11 will directly affect 10,200 workers around Greenfield, Athol and Montague, and indirectly affects 2,500 more. This accounts for 23 percent of the area’s wage earners. Crawford said workers are indirectly affected if they work for businesses or organizations where directly affected workers spend a great deal of money.
Patricia Crosby, executive director of the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board, said she sees both sides of the coin. She said the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation and this raise will be welcomed relief for entry-level workers, though it may be tricky for employers.
“You can work hard at an entry-level job and not be able to support a family. (Minimum wage) really needs to be increased for that purpose,” she said, adding that business owners may feel required to boost wages for all workers. “It takes planning and that’s why it’s important for it to be phased in gradually.”
Al Noyes, who owns Grrr Gear outdoor supply store in Orange with wife, Chris, said they have three part-time employees and adjusted their wages during the year to ease into the change.
There is a national “Fight for $15” movement that advocates for a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers. Noyes said if this was enacted in his field, he would have to lay off employees.
“It’s going to be really hard to maintain price levels if the labor rates increase that much,” he said. “At the end of the day, the only people that are going to win is the taxman (due to increased income tax revenue).”
Noyes said a hike to $15 per hour would have unintended consequences for workers. He said many fast-food restaurants are eliminating labor costs with self-service kiosks. According to Business Insider, companies like McDonald’s are incorporating “Create Your Taste” touchscreen kiosks, making some workers obsolete.
Clare Higgins, executive director of Community Action, the regional anti-poverty agency, said it pays its employees as much as possible. She said two custodians will see their wages increase in the new year.
Steve Crawford of Crawford Strategies, a spokesman for Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of labor, faith and community organizations that work to improve economic and social justice in the state, said the Massachusetts economy is the strongest it has been in almost a decade due to the increased minimum wage.
“We’ve increased the minimum wage a dollar a year for the last three years and our unemployment rate is less than 3 percent. There’s no clearer evidence than that,” he said.
“(An increase) doesn’t just help workers. It helps their communities, their downtown areas, people who depend on having money in their pockets and who are not just spending it on their needs, but on little luxuries as well.”
Also effective now, tipped employees — those who receive more than $20 a month in tips — must be paid a minimum of $3.75 per hour, as long as, with tips, the employee receives at least $11 per hour. If the total hourly rate for the employee, including tips, does not reach $11, the employer must make up the difference.
Workers who believe their rights have been violated in their workplace can call the state Attorney General’s Office’s Fair Labor Hotline at 617-727-3465. More information about the state’s wage and hour laws is also available in multiple languages at www.mass.gov/ago/fairlabor.