Advocates hopeful about $15-an-hour minimum wage in Connecticut, buoyed by New York proposal

Momentum is building for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Connecticut, at least for some workers, given the formation of a new low-wage worker advisory panel and this week's recommendation to raise pay for fast-food workers in neighboring New York, according to some state lawmakers and activists.

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The co-chairmen of the General Assembly's Labor and Public Employees Committee cheered the recommendation from a wage board in New York to phase in a $15 minimum wage for workers in large fast food chains. Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, said it's something that can and should be done in Connecticut.

"It's time to be really looking at how we're going to address people who want to work full time and be able to get a wage that will provide for their families," said Tercyak, who expects such legislation will be proposed in the next regular legislative session, which begins in February.

Connecticut's minimum wage is $9.15 an hour, among the highest in the nation. Last year, Connecticut became the first state to pass legislation to increase it to $10.10, which kicks in on Jan. 1, 2017.

Despite those increases, legislation was proposed this year to encourage companies to pay their workers at least $15 an hour, or about $31,200 a year for full time. The bills, however, focused on larger employers, such as Wal-Mart. The state would collect fees from companies that didn't pay $15. Theoretically, the money would help cover any state assistance provided to the workers.

Although the bills didn't pass, language was later tucked into a budget-related bill to create a new low-wage worker advisory board within the state Department of Labor. It will advise agencies on issues facing low-wage employees in various industries, including retail, fast food and health care. The board's listed tasks include recommending minimum wage rates needed for an "economically stable living standard" in Connecticut.

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Jennifer Schneider, communications director for the labor organization SEIU 1199 New England, expects the board will provide a clearer picture of how much workers are earning and lend credence to a $15-and-hour minimum wage.

"People really realize a $15 wage is really a fair wage for people," she said. "No one is getting rich."

Eric Gjede, assistant counsel with the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, questions whether there's support to further increase Connecticut's minimum wage. He noted how neither bill targeting large employers reached the Senate or House of Representatives this year.

"So, I don't know how much momentum they really have," he said, adding that the higher wage would "hurt job creators, especially job creators that are giving entry-level jobs."

But Gjede suggested a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers in New York and other neighboring states could ultimately benefit Connecticut's business climate, which was strongly criticized by some major employers who recently threatened to leave the state because of proposed business tax increases in one version of the state budget.

"Then, for once, Connecticut finally would be competitive," he said.

Lori Pelletier, executive secretary treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, sees it differently. She contends a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers in New York and elsewhere should make it easier for Connecticut to follow suit. She said CBIA and others complain Connecticut is often the first to pass enhanced worker benefits, such as a recent mandatory paid sick leave law.

"When you've got New York doing it, and there are other states across the country doing it, other cities," she said, "it sort of takes that excuse away."

This week the 240,000-student University of California became the first public university to commit itself to the $15-an-hour wage.

So far, the cities of Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley have approved phased-in increases that eventually will take their minimum wage to $15 an hour. On Tuesday, Los Angeles County, the nation's most populous county, voted to craft a law to do the same over five years.