Senator pushing $15 an hour describes his ‘awkward’ reality

Printed from:

STATE HOUSE — As a legislative committee heard testimony on the pros and cons of setting a $15 hourly pay floor for Logan Airport workers, its Senate chairman repeatedly described the day as an “awkward” moment for him, as both a supporter of the higher minimum wage and an airline CEO who can’t currently afford to pay that wage to all employees.

“Probably on the list of awkward moments at the State House for me, this has to make — not the top of the list, but it gets there,” said Sen. Daniel Wolf, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development and the founder of Cape Air.

At the start of a hearing Tuesday on bills filed by Rep. Adrian Madaro and Sen. Sal DiDomenico that would establish a $15 minimum wage for commercial service employees at Logan Airport, Wolf said his company has “set an operational goal and is working on a timeframe” to get all its employees to at least a $15 wage.

“I just wanted to put that out there,” Wolf said. “It’s an awkward, interesting place for me to be because I do support the effort to get to 15. I think it has to be done in a way so that we make sure that the business community is healthy while we get there.”

The legislation from Madaro and DiDomenico (H 3923, S 2125) would phase in the minimum wage increase over three years, bringing it to $12 this year, $13.50 the next and $15 in 2018.

Workers across a variety of fields, across Massachusetts and nationwide, have been fighting for a $15 pay floor. Fast food and retail workers, personal care attendants and nursing home employees are among those seeking the higher wages.

Wolf, a Harwich Democrat, is the sponsor of a bill (S 1024) that would set a $15 minimum wage for fast food restaurants and so-called “big-box” retailers. The bill was endorsed by the labor committee in November, and Wolf was hailed at a subsequent rally outside the State House as a “champion” of the measure.

In voicing concerns about the airport workers bill, an industry representative used an argument similar to one that has been raised around the fast food and big-box store bill.

W. Chris Harrison, a Memphis attorney testifying on behalf of the trade group Airlines for America, said that the organization would not take a position on higher wages but did oppose “targeting a very small group of employees . . . on a very small, 3.7-acre tract of land and say those employees alone should get a raise.”

[Listen to: Airline for America Testimony]

“Let’s say you have somebody who lives in East Boston who works at the airport and cleans planes,” Harrison said. “They’re making $15 an hour. Well, what about the person who lives in East Boston and cleans office buildings, and they’re making $10, $11, $12 an hour? How is that fair?”

Last month, the Massachusetts minimum wage rose to $10 from $9 an hour. On Jan. 1, 2017, it is scheduled to go up again to $11.

Supporters of the wage floor in Massachusetts say it’s the highest in the nation and House Speaker Robert DeLeo said in late January that he “quite frankly can’t see us revisiting that particular issue.”

Khelia Cox, who works for an airline contractor at Logan Airport, told the committee she recently received a raise to $11 an hour and finds her pay quickly eaten up by necessities like groceries and rent.

“One hour of my pay at $11 an hour, that’s a box of cereal and a gallon of milk for my kids,” she said. “Right now, I have five under the age of 18. Kids eat cereal and milk all the time.”

Jonathan Cornier said he had worked for a Logan contractor for two years and, in that time, seen coworkers become homeless because they were unable to keep up with rent. They then lost access to secure portions of the airport, where a worker’s address is required for security clearance, Cornier said.

“One day they have their badge and the next they have to quit because they can’t even have a house,” he said.

— Written by Katie Lannan

Copyright State House News Service