The dawn of the new year brought some good news for Massachusetts workers, with another increase in the minimum wage and, more importantly, the implementation of guaranteed paid family and medical leave.
The changes, negotiated as part of the so-called “grand bargain” in 2018, will certainly bring at least a modest boost to the fortunes of workers across the state struggling with financial and health challenges brought on by the relentless coronavirus pandemic.
As of Jan. 2, the state’s minimum wage rose from $12.75 to $13.50 an hour. For tipped workers, it climbed from $4.95 to $5.55 an hour. Workers will also be eligible to take up to 20 weeks of paid leave due to a serious injury or illness and up to 12 weeks of family-related leave.
“While many white-collar workers have spent the pandemic sheltering in their home offices and seeing their savings accounts grow, hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers have spent the past nine months struggling to afford protective equipment, food and rent while working on the front lines to keep others safe,” Lily Huang, co-director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, told Commonwealth magazine last week.
While we take issue with the notion of white-collar workers somehow profiting from the pandemic — the money flowing to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the rest of the billionaire set hasn’t trickled down that far — there’s no argument the boost in pay won’t be welcome. And paid family and medical leave offers some semblance of job security as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into the new year.
But the changes come at a difficult time for small businesses struggling to stay afloat as the state veers from one set of opening and occupancy restrictions in an effort to keep the coronavirus from spreading. Again, very few people are getting rich here; most are holding on by a thread to businesses they’ve spent their life building.
State lawmakers can help. In fact, they have two proposals before them, one long-simmering, the other tailored specifically to the challenges brought by the pandemic. Both need to be addressed before the legislative session draws to a close in the coming days.
House and Senate negotiations over a widely anticipated economic development bill have been going on since the summer, and lawmakers should be embarrassed they have yet to produce a final package for approval, especially since there’s wide agreement over the basics.
The package would pour millions of dollars into the state economy at a critical time, with targeted help for restaurants and cultural institutions. It would also include zoning reforms long proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker aimed at boosting new housing production.
Lawmakers also have yet to act on another proposal by the governor to scale back an expected increase in the amount of unemployment taxes paid by local businesses.
The rate is scheduled to climb by 60%; the governor’s bill calls for a 17% hike. Under Baker’s plan, the average per-employee cost for businesses would rise from $539 in 2020 to $635 in 2021. Without a change, the cost would leap to $866 per worker.
“We could do this in January or February or March, but if you want to send a really big and positive signal to employees and to people who are out of work and to employers, this would be an incredibly positive message to send because it limits the increase in unemployment exposure to workers and it also limits the hit financially that would be associated with employers come January,” Baker said.
Lawmakers must act quickly. Bills need to be reported out by Monday night if legislators are to have a chance to review them before a vote in advance of the end of the session Tuesday. But we know the Legislature can act quickly. The House managed a epochal change in the election of a new speaker in a matter of days. Getting a long-debated economic development bill to a vote deserves the same sense of urgency.