By Max Lewontin, State House correspondent
BOSTON – The Massachusetts House approved a bill Wednesday night that would increase the state’s hourly minimum wage from $8 to $10.50 over the next two years, with local legislators arguing beforehand that was more than businesses could bear.
The legislation, which passed on a 123-24 vote, also would overhaul the state’s unemployment insurance system and provide basic work standards and protections for nannies and other domestic workers.
The Senate has already approved separate minimum wage and unemployment insurance bills. The Senate bill would increase the wage to $11 per hour over three years and link automatic increases to the rate of inflation.
The House bill doesn’t link the minimum wage to changes in inflation.
The House and Senate versions will have to be reconciled before going to the governor.
Raising wages for the state’s lowest paid workers has been a contentious issue in both houses of the Legislature.
The differences have touched off a parliamentary procedural war between the two houses.
Those differences were on display Wednesday as area lawmakers explained their positions before the vote.
“I think to jump up (the minimum wage) that much is a tough pill to swallow for most businesses,” said Rep. Steven Howitt, R-Seekonk, who noted he supported an amendment proposed by House minority leader Bradley Jones, R-North Reading, to raise the wage to $9.50 an hour.
The debate split along party lines, with Republican lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Legislature arguing that raising the wage – currently $8 an hour – would hurt small businesses struggling in a slowly reviving economy.
“I’m willing to compromise,” Howitt said in an interview before the debate. “I also don’t like the indexing (to living costs), I don’t think anything should be indexed specifically, especially when we are elected to make those decisions in many cases.”
Another issue, he said, is whether teenagers should be paid at the same rate as other minimum wage workers.
One amendment to the bill supported by local lawmakers, including Reps. Howitt, Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, and Betty Poirier, R-North Attleboro, calls for a so-called training wage for teenagers that would allow employers to hire them for 90 days, paying them at 25 percent of the normal minimum wage rate.
“We need to consider the impact on employers. If I’m an employer, I might be hesitant to hire a 16- or 17-year-old at $10.50 an hour I don’t think anyone is necessarily against people earning a reasonable wage. It’s just, you know, how much do you give,” Howitt said.
Sen. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, said he supported a $9 an hour minimum wage and looking at it again in a year.
“I didn’t like any of the proposals,” said Ross, the minority whip. “I run a small business, so I know very well the detrimental effects of raising the wage in terms of business owners paying their employees.”
“I guess what I would like to see done is something (that incorporates) the viewpoints of small business owners,” he said.
Democrats saw it otherwise.
“The conversation that we are commencing today is about far more than raising the minimum wage,” Rep. Thomas Conroy, D-Wayland, chair of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, said on the House floor.
Noting that Massachusetts was the first state to set a statewide minimum wage in 1912, Conroy said the debate was about fairness to the lowest paid workers in the state.
“Unrestrained, this impulse toward profits at the expense of workers creates unfairness, stifles choice and reduces upward mobility,” he said.
Ross disagreed with the assertion that upping the minimum wage would decrease income inequality.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think the minimum wage was ever intended to be a living wage,” he said.
“What you want to do is get people into training and working their way into higher paid positions,” Ross said, citing the projected 500 jobs that will come to the area with the creation of a slot parlor at Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville.
Both the House and Senate bills would also increase the minimum wage for tipped workers.
There’s also a ballot question that would increase the minimum wage to $10.50 over two years and index future increases to inflation.
Massachusetts last increased the wage in 2008.