The General Assembly should accelerate the date for the Connecticut $15 minimum wage for “essential” low-wage workers. In this fraught time of COVID-19 and of social unrest laid bare by pervasive racial injustice, increasing the minimum wage to $15 now, rather than in 2023, is an important step for workers in essential businesses.
Increasing the minimum wage now sends a compelling message to low-wage workers, many of whom are of color, that the people of Connecticut, through their legislature, will do more than just talk. Instead, the legislature will commit significant economic resources and take immediate, actual, and meaningful steps to address acknowledged economic and racial injustice.
Many who work at businesses identified by Connecticut as “essential” are paid the state minimum wage. Many of these essential employees are persons of color.
In effect, Connecticut sets the lowest possible wage for these essential workers – allowing the rest of us, on the cheap, to be adequately served, fed, maintained, and kept safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. These workers are food and restaurant workers, childcare and elder care workers, janitors and cleaners, store clerks, homeless shelter workers, human service providers, health care workers, and dozens more.
News reporting has revealed the stark and indefensible economic reality of low wages paid to workers the rest of us consider essential to maintain our own well-being.
The current CT minimum wage is $11/hour. It increases to $12 this September; $13 on August 1, 2021, $14 on July 1, 2022, and $15 on October 15, 2023.
We can battle the health emergency and address the racial injustices and injustices of the resulting economic crisis and support the essential workers, who risk contracting the virus. To do so, Connecticut ought to accelerate the state minimum wage progression – for example, from $12/hour to $14 on January 1, 2021, and then to $15/hour on January 1, 2022.
Some small businesses might not be able to sustain an early increased minimum wage during this stressful economic time.
To address that concern, the state should create a fund to pay workers directly for the differential accelerated and increased minimum wage during this time. The fund can be supported through a combination of the unemployment compensation program, federal COVID-19 stimulus funds, funds from a new transportation toll fund, tax revenues paid into the general fund by those of us happily served by essential and low-wage workers, and possible support from large foundations such as those found in Hartford and New Haven.
If, perhaps, 50,000 of low-wage workers are considered “essential,” raising their pay $2/hour for one year might cost such a fund $200 million. Can we afford an accelerated $15 minimum wage? Of course, Connecticut can afford it. The question is whether the state believes it important to devote economic resources at this time to people who provide our basic services. It’s easy to say “no.” It’s more difficult to say “yes” and then work to make it happen. But that is what the legislature and the people of Connecticut are called to do. And we can do it.
The CT legislature is planning to meet in special session to address concerns about COVID-19 and about racial injustice. Among the matters being considered are: better police accountability and transparency, removing zoning and other practices that allow housing discrimination and limits, better access to better health care, addressing entrenched educational disparities and allowing access to high-opportunity school districts, air pollution that disproportionately impacts communities of color, and better access to absentee ballots. All of these matters are critical, will improve our society, and should be enacted. But many of these will take time to implement.
An accelerated $15 wage, however, will benefit low-wage workers immediately. Additionally, it would also help Connecticut’s struggling economy by putting more spending money directly in the hands of essential workers. Importantly, it would publicly demonstrate that the legislature has a heightened awareness of the need to address pervasive racial and economic injustice and is willing to find solutions today, rather than later.
Together, we can vigorously move toward a fairer and more equitable society.
David Biklen of West Hartford is the former Executive Director of the CT Law Revision Commission.