Minimum-wage bill released from Delaware Senate committee after lengthy hearing

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DOVER — The Delaware Senate is set to vote Thursday on legislation raising the state’s minimum wage from $9.25 to $15 in phases, after passing it through committee Wednesday.

Senate Bill 15 would increase the wage floor to $10.50 on Jan. 1, 2022, followed by $11.75 in 2023 and $13.25 in 2024, before hitting $15 on the first day of 2025.

Last raised in 2019, Delaware’s minimum wage currently sits $2 above the federal mark. Twenty-three states have a minimum wage higher than $9.25, including seven that are in the process of raising it to $15. Maryland and New Jersey are among those phasing in a $15 wage, while Washington, D.C., has already done so.

“If you put in a hard day’s work, you earn a fair day’s wage to put food on your table and a roof over your head,” Sen. Jack Walsh, a Stanton Democrat who is the bill’s main sponsor, said Wednesday during a committee hearing.

Forty-four members of the public spoke on the bill in the two-hour Senate Labor Committee meeting, with a majority favoring passage.

Supporters urged senators to back the measure, calling it a moral imperative and one that will go a long way toward reducing poverty and building a better society.

Alissa Barron-Menza, vice president of Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, noted that a federal minimum wage was first enacted during the Great Depression in the 1930s to help spark economic growth.

"We need that same kind of boost again. It’s bad for businesses and communities when workers can’t afford even the basics," she said.

Minimum-wage worker Calvin Sparks spoke of the difficulties of getting by on just $9.25 an hour, saying he must “rob Peter to pay Paul.” Nearly everything he earns goes toward supporting himself, Mr. Sparks said, echoing several others who argued that raising the minimum wage will cause more money to circulate through the economy.

A few people noted that essential workers, ranging from grocery store employees to medical personnel, have been described as heroes over the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, calling it hypocritical that some legislators will not support pay raises for them.

But others argued the bill will backfire, causing businesses to hire fewer people. Many entities will have to close because they cannot bear the burden, especially with the pandemic still raging and government restrictions in place, speakers said.

“I think what we’re going to end up doing is reducing opportunity for folks,” said Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican. “I think it’s especially difficult at this time, when many of our lower-income earners are just getting hammered because of COVID.”

Predictions of prices rising, automation increasing and many of the people a higher minimum wage is meant to help struggling to find work were common Wednesday.

Retirees on a fixed income will suffer, one person said, while another said state pensioners have not received an increase in the cost of living in several years.

“You’re going to price them out of being able to survive within the state of Delaware,” Robert Overmiller told the committee.

Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Judy Diogo urged legislators to send a signal that Delaware is open for business rather than piling greater labor costs on them. This could be an opportunity for the First State to shine, she said: "By not increasing our minimum wage right now, we have the opportunity to be seen in the region as the most business-friendly state."

It wouldn’t only be companies suffering from a higher minimum wage, a few people noted — nonprofits would also be hit hard.

“Simply stated, by year two of implementation this measure would spell tragedy for many nonprofits unless the longterm contracts and grants between Delaware and service providing nonprofit organizations reflect a corresponding rate increase,” Melissa Hopkins, the vice president of sector advancement for the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement, wrote in a letter distributed to the committee.

The measure has support from all 14 Senate Democrats, with 18 of the 26 House Democrats listed as co-sponsors. It needs 11 votes in the Senate and 21 in the House.

Gov. John Carney has said he supports the bill, and his January budget proposal included funding to raise salaries for about 630 executive branch employees (4%-5% of all state workers) to $15 an hour.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 82.3 million Americans 16 and older were paid by the hour in 2019. Of those, 1.6 million made the federal minimum wage (or less).

Forty-three percent of minimum-wage earners were no older than 24, and 55% worked fewer than 35 hours per week. They were also more likely to be female and not to have a degree from a four-year college.

The Congressional Budget Office released a report last month concluding that a $15 federal minimum wage would result in 1.4 million people losing their jobs (a 0.9% increase in unemployment) but would also lift 900,000 people out of poverty. At least 17 million individuals across the country would see higher pay, the findings state.

A few speakers Wednesday said raising the minimum wage will reduce government spending because fewer full-time workers will require benefits like food stamps or Medicaid to get by.

“If a business cannot survive with this raise of minimum wage, then what they are asking Delaware and the federal government to do is subsidize” unfair practices, said Alyssa Bradley with the Delaware Poor People’s Campaign.

Fleur McKendall, president of the Central Delaware NAACP, was among those who stumped for the bill on the basis of correcting centuries-old systemic inequalities, saying many of the individuals currently making minimum wage are women and/or minorities.

“Because of sexism and racism, people of color have historically been locked out of the American dream,” Ms. McKendall said.