House approves $15 minimum wage for Connecticut after marathon debate

MAY 09, 2019 | 5:17 PM

After an epic, marathon 14-hour debate that lasted all night, the state House of Representatives voted Thursday to raise Connecticut’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023.

The sharply partisan debate began at 10 p.m. Wednesday and wrapped up with a 85-59 vote shortly after noon. Much of the time was taken up by Republicans who spoke to a sometimes-empty House chamber about how increasing the minimum wage would stifle the state’s already lackluster economic growth.

All Republicans present, and two Democrats, Patrick Boyd of Pomfret and Chris Ziogas of Bristol, voted against the measure.

Republicans knew the Democratic majority had enough votes to pass the bill, but that did not deter them throughout the night and into the morning.

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“I’m not sure I’m changing any minds,” Rep. Tom O’Dea, a New Canaan Republican, said at 9 a.m. during a long speech where he said raising the wage would lead to fewer jobs. “We are in the tank.”

Another Republican, Rep. Richard Smith of New Fairfield, said he was concerned about potential damage to the state’s economy, as well as high-profile departures such as the move of General Electric Co.'s headquarters to Boston after four decades in Fairfield.

“I feel angst this morning, besides being ornery and tired,” Smith told his colleagues.

Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat who pushed for raising the wage as a candidate during the 2018 election campaign, urged the Senate to adopt the measure so he could sign it into law.

“If our economy doesn’t work for everyone, then it doesn’t work. It’s that simple,” Lamont said in a written statement. "I’m doing everything possible to engage the business community so they can grow here, relocate or stay and hire Connecticut residents who represent the top workforce in the country. In order to grow, we need policies that protect our workforce and the small businesses who need them.''

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Rejecting financial arguments made by the Republicans, Lamont added, "Raising the minimum wage will help lift families out of poverty, combat persistent pay disparities between races and genders, and stimulate our economy. This compromise represents a fair, gradual increase that will improve the lives of working families in our state who struggle to pay for childcare, afford tuition, put food on the table, pay the mortgage, or cover the rent. I applaud the action taken by the House today and urge the Senate to swiftly approve as well so that I may proudly sign this into law.”

More than 330,000 Connecticut workers currently earn the $10.10 an hour minimum wage, according to legislators. The bill would increase the minimum wage to $11 on Oct. 1, $12 on Sept. 1, 2020, $13 on Aug. 1, 2021, $14 on July 1, 2022 and $15 on Oct. 15, 2023. After that date, increases would be tied to the federal Employment Cost Index, which tracks wages and is less volatile than the better-known consumer price index.

An employee working 40 hours a week at $15 an hour would make about $31,000 an year. A worker earning the current $10.10 minimum wage earns about $21,000 per year.

For more than 14 hours, the debate generated passionate speeches by Democrats in favor of the bill and Republicans opposed.

“This is personal for me,” said Rep. Robyn Porter, a New Haven Democrat who helped write the bill as co-chair of the labor committee. “I have been that mother, a divorced mom, having to work two and three jobs — having to miss after-school programs, plays. ... This has been a long time coming. It is long overdue.”

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The bill does not increase the tipped wage, which is the minimum that must be paid to wait staff and bartenders.

Waitstaff can be paid a minimum of $6.38 an hour and bartenders a minimum of $8.23 an hour, as long as they reach the standard minimum wage when tips are included. If they don’t, their employer must make up the difference.

The bill calls for a special wage for 16- and 17-year-olds who would earn 85 percent of the minimum wage for their first 90 days of employment. After that, they would receive the full minimum wage. Lawmakers said the wage would be targeted toward seasonal workers at places like summer camps, amusement parks and swimming pools.

The National Federal of Independent Businesses panned the bill and said it would disproportionately harm small businesses, forcing them to cut jobs and workers’ hours.

“Many companies simply can’t raise prices because the consumer won’t pay more," said Andrew Markowski, state director of NFIB in Connecticut. “The business owner doesn’t make much of a profit at a pizza shop or gift shop on Main Street. So, cutting labor costs is the only choice left. That’s bad for the small businesses in towns all over Connecticut, it’s bad for their employees, and the state economy, especially in the shore towns.

“Hopefully, members of the Senate will understand the quandary these small business owners face when they vote. We are grateful to the House members who stood up for small business during more than 12 hours of debate and opposed this bill.”