AUGUSTA, Maine — Restaurant workers, low-income advocates and religious organizations appealed to lawmakers Thursday to index Maine’s minimum wage to cost-of-living increases, saying it would protect low-income workers from having their pay further eroded by inflation.
But business groups warned the Labor Committee that the election-year bill also would discourage job growth amid a weakened economy and questioned the wisdom of leaving future minimum wage increases to a formula rather than legislative deliberation.
Maine’s hourly minimum wage, $7.50 an hour, is 25 cents an hour higher than the federal minimum. Rep. John Tuttle’s bill would adjust Maine’s minimum wage based on changes in the federal Consumer Price Index for the Northeast. With passage, Maine would join the 10 other states that also index their minimums.
Among those states in northern New England is Vermont, where minimum wage is now $8.06 an hour. A bill to index New Hampshire’s minimum wage was killed last year, leaving it at $7.25 an hour.
Tuttle, D-Sanford, left the door open Thursday to delaying Maine’s indexing law for a couple of years to wait for the economy to rebound. Still, his bill has the potential to generate heated legislative debate, given its support by key lawmakers while many other lawmakers are reluctant to put more pressure on recession-racked businesses.
Among the bill’s co-sponsors are Tuttle’s co-chairman on the Labor Committee, Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Fort Kent; House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven; the two Democratic House floor leaders and other members of the labor panel.
Portland resident and restaurant worker Warren Hyman told the committee Thursday that increases in the minimum tend to bump up low wages he and others receive.
“I have a family to care for,” said Hyman, adding that the $10 an hour he makes is not enough to live on. He said a rise in the minimum would keep many low-wage earners from seeking social services such as food stamps.
Rose Strout of the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods, which advocates for low-income people, said she knows minimum wage earners who are staying in shelters because they no longer can afford rent and buy cat food to eat instead of tuna fish to save money.
“Their budgets are stretched to the breaking point,” Strout said. “Those earning the minimum wage are falling further and further behind.”
Tuttle said he was prompted to introduce the bill by seniors in his district who have been forced to return to work. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, the Maine Council of Churches, Maine AFL-CIO, Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Women’s Lobby are among the other groups supporting his bill.
David Clough of the National Federation of Independent Business said Maine has the nation’s 11th-highest minimum wage already. He cited a study suggesting that hundreds of jobs could be lost as businesses, squeezed by higher labor costs, slowed down or stopped hiring.
The Maine Merchants Association’s Jim McGregor said changing the minimum wage “is too important an issue to be left to a simplistic formula that may or may not reflect economic and workplace conditions and issues in Maine.”
The Maine State Chamber of Commerce’s Peter Gore said that while minimum wage changes may be worthy of discussion, it opposes “automatic escalators” such as indexing. He also warned the committee that it’s increasingly difficult for businesses to absorb new fixed costs.