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Hundreds rally for $15/hr, call on state to act on bills

State House protest part of national movement

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Hundreds rally for $15/hr, call on state to act on bills
Low-wage workers marched through downtown, stopping to protest outside businesses such as Primark and McDonald’s.

Hundreds of low-wage workers and supporters rallied outside the State House last week and marched through downtown streets chanting their demands for a $15 per hour minimum wage and workers’ rights to unionize. The protest followed on a morning of strikes, lobbying and other rallies across Boston, part of a nationwide movement that sparked marches in dozens of cities.

Demonstrators called for healthcare, transportation, education, airport, retail, human services and fast food workers to be paid at least $15 per hour, a level they say is necessary to allow workers to support themselves adequately, especially in a city as expensive as Boston. According to a recent Brookings Institute report, in 2014 Boston had the highest level of income inequality of any large city in America.

“The cost of living goes up. Wages have to go up,” Lisa Abru, a medical assistant told the Banner at the rally. She said she sometimes has to decide between paying a bill or buying food for her children.

Protesters gathered outside the state house, advocating higher minimum wage.

Several demonstrators spoke of the struggle to meet financial obligations and the family time lost to the need to work multiple jobs. They cited a lack of respect they felt from a society that values their jobs below what they consider a living wage, compounded by the stress of poverty.

Members of the Wage Action Coalition organized the event, in part to urge state legislature to pass proposed bills that would raise wages to a $15 per hour minimum for major retail store, fast food and Logan International Airport workers and those working as home care aides. The coalition also is willing and able to bring the fight for $15 to the public ballot, Tyrék Lee, executive vice president of Service Employees International Union 1199, told the Banner.

Fight to survive

Workers from a range of sectors and backgrounds spoke of struggles to get by.

One of them is Nkrumah Hartfield, who works on the Merchandising Execution Team for Home Depot. Hartfield earns $11 an hour, a fifty cent raise over his hiring salary of $10.50 a year ago. Meanwhile, he told the Banner, it costs him $80 a month for transport to work — nearly an entire day’s pay. After expenses for transit, groceries, taxes and other basic necessities and along with helping to support his children, he estimated he nets about $6.50 from an eight-hour workday.

He has no savings and nothing set aside in case of emergencies.

Even for those making above $15, expenses can be a struggle. Sheilah Belin has four children and earns $20 per hour working full-time as medical assistant at Boston Medical Center. She relies on an $11 per hour part-time job at the Roxbury YMCA to help support herself and her family. Affording anything extra, such as extracurricular activities for school-age children is a challenge, she told the Banner, and the long work schedule cuts away from time she has with her family, including a 20-month-old baby.

“I feel if I pull back from the second job, it will be harder financially at home with my kids,” she said.

An October 2015 Alliance for a Just Society report stated that a single adult needs to make $19.61 an hour to be self-sufficient in Massachusetts, and a single parent with two children needs to earn $43.30 an hour.

Sector push-out

Protestors said all workers deserve to get by, and that low-paying jobs — many of which provide food, health and education — matter. One consequence of poor wages is that they may push workers out of these fields, presuming workers have the ability to leave.

Sarah Condict, a 2012 UMass Amherst graduate who entered the field of social work, told the Banner that even jobs requiring her bachelor’s degree paid her an unsustainable amount. She said that the stress of her own poverty, coupled with the stress of the job, prompted her to leave social work and move in with her mother.

“I got burned out on the field of mental health … [in part because] I was struggling to survive and living in poverty myself,” Condict said.

In one such job, she cared for 15 patients with schizophrenia and diabetes in a group home, and made only $13.25 per hour.

Marchers proceed through downtown streets crying chants against corporate greed and in support of higher wages and workers’ rights to unionize.

Disputed effects

Among the arguments made by those who oppose a $15 minimum wage are that it would raise employment costs, potentially causing businesses to cut back on hiring or raise their prices. Another is the domino effect: If wages rise for the lowest-paid, those higher up the pay scale will expect more as well. Some supporters of a $15 minimum claim that large businesses can absorb the costs, and that decent pay is necessary to ensure the best work. SEIU 1199’s Lee also said that if people who currently work multiple jobs start making a decent wage at just one, it will free up those other positions, generating more hiring.

Where they stand

Bills to raise wages at Logan Airport, big box retail stores and fast food venues are currently in the state senate. Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz, Dan Wolf, Jamie Eldridge, Ken Donnelly and Pat Jehlen turned out for the Fight for $15 rally. During a press earlier this month, Senate President Stan Rosenberg voiced support for increasing the minimum wage: “I support a living wage and we need to keep moving up,” Rosenberg said.

Mayor Martin Walsh has declared support for bringing Boston and the state’s minimum wage to $15, and created a task force to examine how to implement it. The task force recommendations are expected later this year.

Meanwhile, a bill in the House would raise the wage for home care agency workers. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said in the April press conference that discussing it would be premature to discuss raising the minimum wage to$15 before the scheduled increase to $11 in January 2017.

Governor Charlie Baker also said that it is too early to consider a minimum wage increase past the planned $11 level, stating his support to increasing the earned income tax credit for low-income working families and job training programs as other tools to combating income inequality.

“There are a lot of elements to this discussion, and certainly the minimum wage is one,” Baker said in April. “But I think Massachusetts is pursing what I would call a multi-faceted approach to this, and that’s the right way to go.”