By MATT MURPHY
State House News Service
---- — BOSTON — Supporters of guaranteeing Massachusetts workers earned sick time and a minimum wage increase are prepping a fallback plan should efforts to pass bills through the Legislature this session stall again: the ballot box.
A coalition of unions, advocacy groups and faith leaders gathered Wednesday to formally launch a new ballot committee called Raise Up Massachusetts. The committee’s goal is to let voters decide those questions in 2014 if the Legislature fails to act.
The group’s mission, according to organizers, will be to first try to push legislation through the Legislature by next summer. If they fail, organizers say they will gather the necessary signatures to add two questions to the 2014 statewide ballot pushing for 40 hours of earned sick leave and an increase in the minimum wage to $11 per hour.
Organizers say dual ballot drives around issues like the minimum wage and earned sick time could also drive up voter turnout for progressive candidates in a year when the governor’s office and other statewide posts will be up for grabs. Democrats next year hope to build on the work of Gov. Deval Patrick, who broke a 16-year Republican hold on the Corner Office in 2006, while the GOP will be trying to break back into halls of the State House.
Debra Fastino, executive director of the Coalition for Social Justice, has taken the lead on the earned sick time part of the drive, and said this year was the fifth time supporters have filed legislation to guarantee that nearly 1 million workers in Massachusetts can take time off work without worrying about losing their jobs.
The bill aimed at helping mostly low-income workers has failed to gain traction in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Supporters says earned sick time will reduce unemployment, decrease employee turnover and improve productivity. Some business groups, however, worry that mandated benefits and higher wages could make Massachusetts uncompetitive with neighboring states and discourage business growth and hiring.
“We have made progress, great progress, on both issues legislatively, but working families can’t wait any longer,” Fastino said.
The ballot questions are expected to be modeled off legislation filed by Sen. Daniel Wolf, of Harwich, and Sen. Marc Pacheco, of Taunton. Wolf’s bill would mandate job-protected time off for all private sector employees, allowing workers to earn an hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked with annual caps based on the size of the business.
Pacheco’s bill would raise the state’s minimum wage from $8 per hour to $11 an hour over three years.
Though similar bills have been filed and refined over the past several years, neither issue has received much of a push from legislative leaders until this year. Senate President Therese Murray has made the minimum wage a front-burner issue in the Senate this session, and though she has yet to endorse a specific wage floor she has repeatedly discussed how wages have failed to keep up with the cost of living.
SEIU Local 509 President Susan Tousignant, a co-chair of the Raise Up Massachusetts committee, said going to the ballot is a last resort, but a step activists want to prepare for.
“We’re pleased with how it’s going on in the Legislature but we do want to kind of push this along,” said Tousignant, whose union represents many low-wage human service workers in the private sector.
Fastino and Tousignant said details of the ballot proposals are still subject to change, but the groups will also support indexing the minimum wage to inflation to avoid future political battles and allow base wages to keep pace with the cost of living in the Northeast. The last time the minimum wage was increased was in 2008.
“What we’re really looking at is the economy in Massachusetts. Raising the minimum wage will put a lot of money back into the economy,” Tousignant said.
As lawmakers plan Wednesday to finalize a $500 million tax bill, more than two dozen groups are set to participate in the ballot committee launch Wednesday on the front steps of the State House, including the Coalition for Social Justice, Greater Boston Legal Services, Jewish Alliance for Law & Social Action, Mass AFL-CIO, MassUniting, Massachusetts Communities Action Network, NASW-Massachusetts and the SEIU State Council.
The launch coincides with a national day of action on the minimum wage, with local events happening around the state.
Fastino said she’s hopeful that one of the two bills will be passed by the Legislature this session, but is less optimistic that Democratic leaders on Beacon Hill will try to pass both in the same session. So the ballot is the next best thing.
“We mean business at this point,” Fastino said.