The minimum hourly wage an employer can legally pay workers is rising in 23 states this year, thanks to recent legislation. Thanks to one of Gov. Chris Sununu’s record number of vetoes last year, New Hampshire is not among those states.
In fact, it’s been more than a decade since the minimum wage in the Granite State — tied to the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour — has risen.
Meanwhile, the rates in nearby states have risen quite dramatically. In Massachusetts, the rate has been raised from $8 an hour in 2010 to $12.75, the second-highest in the nation, behind Washington. That’s a 59 percent hike in a decade.
In Maine, the rate has gone up 60 percent, from $7.50 to $12.
In bucolic Vermont, lawmakers late last month overrode Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s veto to raise that state’s minimum wage from $10.78 to $10.96 for 2020. Next January, it will rise to $11.75; in 2022 it goes to $12.55, and then becomes tied to the inflation rate.
Again: In 2020, the minimum hourly wage rates in nearby states are: Vermont $10.96; Maine $12; Massachusetts $12.75. And in New Hampshire it’s $7.25.
Little wonder, then, that Granite State businesses can’t find workers, even for the most basic of jobs; or that young adults fresh out of school are heading elsewhere. No surprise, then, that those earning minimum wage rates can’t afford housing here.
And this in a state where the median household income is the nation’s eighth highest. That ought to tell you a lot about income disparity and the so-called New Hampshire Advantage.
Which brings us back to the Statehouse.
The dichotomy between the N.H. Legislature’s Democratic majorities and Republican Gov. Sununu hasn’t changed since 2019. Elected with what they perceive to be a mandate from voters to right social and economic wrongs, members of the House and Senate have set about passing legislation on wage increases, family leave, criminal justice reform, alternative energy and more, only to have Sununu (and, subsequently, their GOP counterparts) block those efforts. There’s hope, but little evidence, that things will be different this year.
Nevertheless, Democratic lawmakers have again proposed bills to raise the state’s minimum wage. Two House bills offering varying wage increases phased in over the next few years passed. One was set aside for study by the Senate, while the other, House Bill 731, remains active. It would raise the minimum wage to $8.50 this year, with increases up to $15 by 2025. A bill started in the Senate is less ambitious overall, but starts out with a bang, raising the wage to $10 in 2021, and $12 in 2022. That one passed the Senate and is now before the House.
Somehow, the legislative majorities will have to decide which avenue to pursue, or find a compromise. Then they must deal with the governor.
The arguments against raising the minimum wage haven’t changed much over the years. One that’s been debunked pretty effectively is that the minimum wage really only applies to teenagers starting out in their first jobs. A study by the Economic Policy Institute long ago showed the typical minimum-wage earner is a white female over age 25 (that doesn’t include wait staff, bartenders and other tipped employees).
The argument that businesses won’t survive a wage increase or that with a set pot of money to pay workers, raising wages will mean cutting jobs is a more potent one. The Congressional Budget Office report last summer estimated that raising the federal minimum wage to $15 (which would more than double it, and New Hampshire’s rate along with it) would raise 1.3 million Americans out of poverty, but would also cost 1.3 million jobs. However, the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment has repeatedly studied the issue and found that where minimum wages have been raised, no widespread job losses have followed.
There is, of course, a middle ground. A wage of $7.25 is simply not enough to live on in today’s America — at least, in today’s Granite State. That doesn’t mean the rate has to be doubled automatically. The main problem with raising wages flatly is that different regions have differing economic factors at work — higher or lower housing costs, energy prices, health or child care, etc. So mandating a wage hike based on what makes for a good sound bite isn’t the right move everywhere.
However, New Hampshire Democratic lawmakers are right to seek a better wage. If the governor and Republican leaders don’t want to see the state’s business sector left behind for want of workers, they’d be smart to start negotiating how much that raise ought to be.