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'Grand Bargain' Could Be State Law By Wednesday Night

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The Massachusetts State House.
Paris Alston/WGBH News

A negotiated compromise raising the minimum wage from $11 to $15 an hour, boosting wages for tipped workers, creating a paid medical and family leave program and scaling back premium pay to those who work Sundays and holidays could reach Gov. Charlie Baker's desk Wednesday.

After members briefly reviewed legislation Wednesday morning, the House early Wednesday afternoon voted 106-37 to move the bill along, a vote split roughly along party lines. Four Democrats — Somerville Reps. Denise Provost and Mike Connolly, Haverhill Rep. Diana DiZoglio and Springfield Rep. Carlos Gonzalez — voted against giving the deal initial approval.

"We're trying to get it done, send it over to the Senate today, and hopefully on to the governor's desk later on today or first thing in the morning, depending on how long it gets to the paperwork," House Speaker Robert DeLeo said after a roughly hourlong caucus where lawmakers discussed the deal.

The bill, which also requires an annual sales tax holiday weekend, cleared the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday morning. Fourteen representatives voted for the plan, two were opposed and six committee members chose not to weigh in, according to the committee.

DeLeo said after caucus that he would like the legislation to pass without amendments, "unless we missed a period or a semicolon."

The deal would gradually increase the minimum wage from $11 an hour to $15 an hour over five years, culminating in 2023. Over the same period of time, the state would phase out the requirements that most businesses pay workers time-and-a-half on Sundays, stepping the Sunday premium pay rate down by 10 percentage points each year.

The minimum cash wage for tipped workers would also rise under the deal, increasing from the current rate of $3.75 per hour to $6.75 per hour by 2023.

In exchange, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts has agreed to drop its ballot push for a cut to the sales tax, averting a possible ballot fight in November, according to two sources. The association's executive committee has voted to accept the bargain. Had the tax reduction been successful, state government would have had to grapple with the losse of $1.2 billion in annual tax revenue.

The bill also requires most employers to provide family and medical leave. Workers would be eligible to take up to 12 weeks of family leave or 20 weeks of medical leave to receive medical treatment, to bond with a new child, care for a family member with a serious injury or handle matters that arise from a family member's active duty military service. The maximum allowed leave would be an aggregate 26 weeks.

The program's benefits, as structured in the bill, would replace a worker's pay with a weekly benefit cap of $850 or a rate adjusted to equal 64 percent of the state average weekly wage, according to a bill summary. Up to the first half of the state average weekly wage (currently $669.03), the worker would be reimbursed at a rate of 80 percent. Then, the worker would be paid half of the difference between their weekly wage and the state average weekly wage, according to the bill summary.

The benefits would be funded through a payroll tax of 0.63 percent, or an adjusted amount set annually by the Department of Family and Medical Leave, which the bill also establishes under the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

Employees would be required to cover all of the family leave contribution and 40 percent of the medical leave contribution. Employers would cover at least 60 percent of the contribution to the medical leave trust fund.

If lawmakers can strike and pass a deal on the potential ballot questions this week, perhaps as early as Wednesday, they can assure themselves enough time to deal with any response from Baker, who has been rooting for a "grand bargain" but declined to stake out viewpoints on any of the specific proposals.

Baker, whose administration was not a formal partner in the talks that led to the deal, said late Wednesday morning that he had not read the proposed deal and would not comment specifically on it.

"I think overall this is good news" because it addresses the issues through the Legislature rather than the ballot, he said.

If the House and Senate can pass the bill by veto-proof majorities, they would be able to circumvent any potential opposition from the governor.

Since it's intended to settle the ballot questions, the deal will also need signoff from the major players behind each of the ballot campaigns.

The Raise Up coalition, which is behind the minimum wage and paid leave questions, said nearly two hours after it began a meeting to review the bill that its grassroots committee had voted to drop its proposed paid family leave ballot question if the "grand bargain" bill is signed into law, but said a decision on its minimum wage ballot proposal was still pending.

The Raise Up Coalition said it supports parts of the bill, but said it is "troubled by the size of the increase in the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers" and "strongly opposed to the Legislature’s decision to eliminate Sunday time-and-a-half pay."

"This legislation is a victory for the nearly one million Massachusetts workers who will see their wages go up as the minimum wage increases to $15 an hour. It's a victory for every worker in Massachusetts who will be able to take paid time off from work to take care of themselves or a family member after a medical emergency or the birth of a new child. It's a victory for teenage workers, who beat back proposals to create a teen sub-minimum wage that would hurt their ability to help support their family budgets or save for college," the coalition said in a statement Wednesday morning. "Most importantly, it's a victory for all people who want a strong economy that works for all of us, not just those at the top."

The coalition said it was "fully prepared" to place its minimum wage and paid leave questions on the ballot and would present the bill to its more than 100 members Wednesday morning for a vote.

The coalition's statement was released during the House caucus, and DeLeo said he had not seen the details of it.

"The only thing I can tell you is the fact that I know Raise Up has anywhere from 150 to 180 members to it, so probably trying to get that many folks to agree is a difficult task," he told reporters. "Having said that, if you take a look in terms of what we did and what the ballot question does, I think that what we did fares very favorably with the ballot question."

The leader of one key constituency came out against the compromise at midday Wednesday.

Steve Tolman, the president of the AFL-CIO Massachusetts and a member of the Raise Up, wrote to lawmakers urging them to reject any deal that includes the elimination of time-and-a-half pay on Sundays, which the bargain includes. Tolman asked that the bill be amended on the floor to eliminate the Sunday wage provision, which would in effect scuttle the deal.

"We do not accept that we must cut wages for some in order to raise them for others. Therefore, on behalf of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO I strongly urge you to vote NO on any legislation that includes the elimination of time-and-one-half on Sundays," Tolman wrote.

He also took issue with the Legislature's rush to push a bill to the governor's desk only hours after publicly releasing the details. "A true 'grand bargain' would allow the advocates who have worked tirelessly on this legislation to collectively review and weigh in with their opinions, and offer amendments. Instead, we are being forced to accept a flawed bill that raises standards for some and will actually lower wages for others," Tolman said.

Legislative negotiators who worked with the ballot campaigns did not make dropping the questions a "precondition" in developing their deal, House Majority Leader Ron Mariano said.

"We hoped that that would be the case, and we talked about that being the case a number of times," Mariano said on his way into the the caucus where lawmakers discussed the 40-page bill. "I never left with a strong conviction that that was an agreement."

The Quincy Democrat said he did not think everyone would be happy with the bill but there was "enough in the package to make both sides feel that they're getting something that was important to them." A particular challenge, he said, was finding something acceptable to "the bulk of" the Raise Up Coalition.

"The thing that's difficult is negotiating with a coalition, and within that coalition, there are various groups, especially the Raise Up Coalition had a wide range of groups from socially active folks to union reps," he said. "So you had a wide range of people you're trying to accommodate. The other side, the business side, was pretty much split into small retailers and big businesses so it was a little easier to figure out what their concerns were than it was to do with Raise Up."

Mariano said the bill was the product of "about five or six" negotiating sessions, and that "a pathway we might be able to get down" became apparent to lawmakers after the first two or three meetings.

The Supreme Judicial Court's decision on Monday to knock a 4 percent surtax on incomes over $1 million off the ballot "relaxed the business guys a little bit," Mariano said, but the House and Senate had "pretty much come to our conclusions before that."

Asked if he expects Baker to sign the bill, Mariano said, "I can't tell the future, but I think the governor would be very happy if we could get that sales tax question off the ballot. Can't speak for him, but I know that if I was the governor, I would be relieved if I didn't have to face that."

Second Assistant Minority Leader Rep. Elizabeth Poirier said she was looking forward to learning the details of the proposed compromise at the Republican caucus Wednesday morning, but said she does not support a $15 per hour minimum wage.

"They are not going to be able to withstand this," she said in her office of the minimum wage increase. "Business after business after business has come to me and told me they cannot sustain that."

Poirier said she is concerned about the way the House conducts business -- specifically that Democrats were expecting to bring the ballot question compromise to the floor for a vote on Wednesday with only a few hours of notice and after a session that went until 11 p.m. Tuesday.

"These issues hang around for a long time but we often don’t get to discuss them and talk in terms of the good and bad and come to some middle ground," she said. "Everything seems to be done on the fly and that is not a thoughtful way of doing things."

Associated Industries of Massachusetts, one of the business groups involved in the months of talks over the ballot questions, wrote to Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Harriette Chandler Wednesday to accept the terms of the deal on behalf of its corporate members.

Because most of the groups' members already pay $15 an hour or more, the paid family and medical leave negotiations were of particular interest to AIM throughout the process. AIM Executive Vice President John Regan described the talks as "intense but respectful."

"This agreement is not the one we would have designed on our own, but we realize that everyone gives something during a negotiation. We also realize that the ballot process is a one-sided, winner-take-all proposition, and that coming to a legislative compromise allows a broader group to have input into key decisions to create policies that work for everyone," Regan wrote.

Matt Murphy contributed reporting.

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