SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

February 3, 2014

Column: A balanced approach to higher wages

It’s an election year, and that means the special interests that fund legislative campaigns are pressing Beacon Hill for action on their issues. Perhaps the most powerful collection of those groups in Massachusetts, the big unions that represent government, health care and higher education workers, are going for broke.

They are demanding that Beacon Hill pass the highest state minimum wage in the country at $11 an hour, while refusing to touch the state’s costly, abused and loophole-ridden state unemployment insurance eligibility rules.

None of this is surprising to the Massachusetts employer community. Fortunately, we have some Beacon Hill leaders who understand the importance of maintaining some balance in order to grow jobs and to remain competitive with those states over the border and across the country.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Gov. Deval Patrick have both made it clear that they support raising the minimum wage, but they also support a long overdue reform to an unemployment system that drives up the cost of doing business and is abused by certain employers and employees alike.

It is sound policy, especially during tough economic times, for the state to look for ways to alleviate costs for employers if they are going to be increasing costs through wage mandates. And unemployment insurance reform is long overdue.

Massachusetts is an outlier among the states for not having a real minimum time worked eligibility standard, only a minimum earnings test. That loophole means that certain employers and their employees regularly and legally abuse the system by establishing a rotating pattern of only a few weeks of work followed by unemployment benefits, followed by work, and so on.

The Massachusetts Senate has passed a bill that would raise the state’s minimum wage by $3. That would put our state level, already one of the highest in the nation, $2 higher than any other state in our region and $1 higher than the closest state, California. Regrettably, no unemployment insurance reforms, or other measures to offset the cost to employers were included in the bill.

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