April 08, 2020

Minimum wage hike good start for Maine

Like most Maine families, there are two days of the month circled on my calendar: paydays. As a small business owner, I am able to make a good living for my family, and most importantly, I enjoy what I do. Certainly, I know I’ll never get rich doing it – but I like helping my customers and giving back to our community.

It’s hard work running your own business, but it’s a team effort between my family and my employees. My employees work very hard, and I try to pay them a good wage because they’re worth every penny of their skills, attitude, and work ethic. I think this is true of most people working here in Maine, and it’s why I fought to stand up for Maine workers in the Legislature and raise the minimum wage.

As of Oct. 1, Maine’s minimum wage will increase to $6.75 an hour, with another 25-cent increase planned for next year. Our state is behind most of the other New England states in paying better wages, and raising the minimum wage to $7 will make a difference for many Maine families.

When we think of who earns the minimum wage in Maine, our immediate image is usually of a teenager flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant. But the reality is that 70 percent of minimum wage earners are adults over 20 years old, and more than two-thirds of them are women. Still others are your parents and grandparents, people who have retired after a lifetime of hard work but can’t pay their bills from their modest Social Security checks.

Making it on the minimum has never been harder in Maine. A person working full-time earning just the minimum wage, $6.50 an hour, is only making $13,520 a year before taxes below the federal poverty level for a family of four. Imagine trying to raise your family on that amount of money these days, while at the same time paying your mortgage, heating your home, and paying for gas just to get to work each day. Providing for your family on that kind of money means creating a balance sheet without dollars, listing instead the tough choices needed to keep food on the table and roof over your head.

When we were considering raising the minimum wage last year, I had a fellow small business owner call me, worried about how much more it would cost him in payroll. As a business owner myself I understand that concern, but as a business owner I also know that a business is only as good as the people who make it. But investing in Maine workers is just one component of what we need to do to move Maine forward.

I was also eager to work to lower other cost for small businesses. That’s one of the major reasons why I supported the elimination of the business equipment tax reimbursement program (BETR), so that we could better nurture our all businesses and level the playing field. This year, we passed an entire package of legislation aimed at making it easier to do business in Maine, from creating a central place for small business owners to comply with state laws and regulations, to starting a business and consumer court to streamline business-related legal matters in our justice system.

For every opportunity we give small businesses to develop, we must also give their workers due consideration. We have to give them fair pay for an honest day’s work to strengthen families and community, and, in turn, grow our economy.

When parents can’t earn enough to support their families, it is the taxpayers who carry the burden for low-wage employers. Nearly 40 percent of Maine children live in low-income households, and more than 25 percent of families in our state are single-parent homes. If these kids can’t afford to buy lunch at school, or their parents can’t carry health insurance, it is our tax dollars that bridge the gap to create a better future for these children.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Congress has raised the federal minimum wage, leaving the task up to the states to help hard-working people make ends meet. At some point, though, our policy debate has to look beyond enabling people to live paycheck to paycheck, and instead, offer the quality of life that our state is renowned for.

Raising our minimum wage puts people first, and raises the standards we want for Maine’s future.

Walter Ash is a Democratic state representative from Belfast.

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