By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- As the debate over raising the minimum wage continues in Massachusetts and across the country, Sen. Elizabeth Warren hosted the Senate's number two Democrat in Boston Monday to trumpet a wage increase as a matter of economic justice.

Warren and Illinois senior Sen. Richard Durbin, the Senate majority whip, visited a downtown Boston Boloco restaurant with the chain's co-founder John Pepper, who made the decision when he started the company over 16 years ago to pay his employees more than his fast-food competitors.

Pepper, who was 27 when he started Boloco in Boston in 1996, said workers at his restaurants now earn a minimum of $9 an hour, a dollar more than the state minimum wage, and some supervisors can earn up to $15 an hour.

"The most important things we could do to make a difference in this world, using a burrito to do it, was changing the lives and futures of the people who work in fast food," Pepper told a group minimum wage advocates, workers and business representatives gathered at the Congress Street Boloco in the financial district for a roundtable discussion.

>>> For a video report on Warren and Durbin's meeting, go to http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-02-10warren/ <<<

As his employees rolled burritos in the kitchen behind him, Pepper said, "We began to realize that it would be difficult to build a business that we could be proud of if we were doing it on, as I've said many times, the underpaid back of others, which was and unfortunately still is the norm in the restaurant industry and many other industries.


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Warren and Durbin were in Boston together to push for a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, with increases for tipped-wage workers as well. Warren also supports the efforts underway in Massachusetts to go even higher.

"We are in this fight to win and we are going to win this fight. Businesses, workers and the people who represent you in Washington, we're going to get out there and do the right thing. Full-time work should not be full time poverty," Warren said.

Durbin, however, said the odds of passage in Congress are dubious at best with Republican support needed in the Senate to get a bill through the Democrat-controlled chamber and the odds likely longer in the House.

"This used to be a bipartisan issue. It used to be that Democrats and Republicans said with frequency we're going to raise the minimum wage. Sadly, whether it's unemployment benefits or minimum wage, it's become too partisan, so we have to ask a very hard question in the Senate. Will there be five Republican senators who will join us to get this done?" Durbin said.

Calling the House "death valley" for a lot of proposals that clear the Senate, Durbin said, "If Speaker John Boehner won't touch it the American people get the last say in the elections."

In Massachusetts, the state Senate last year passed a bill raising the minimum wage to $11 an hour and advocates are waiting to see how high House Speaker Robert DeLeo might be willing to go. Lew Finfer, of the Raise Up Coalition, said if the Legislature can't pass a bill or passes a "weak" bill, his organization is prepared to go to the ballot in November with a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour.

Some business groups in the state have argued that raising the minimum wage will hurt small business owners and stymie growth and job creation as the economy is slowly rebounding from the recession. In an effort to address business concerns, DeLeo and other lawmakers have conditioned their support for a minimum wage increase on unemployment insurance reforms to lower business costs being added to the package.

Asked whether he could see minimum wage legislation on the national level combined with something business wants to cut costs and secure the necessary political support, Durbin said, "What I find today is too darn many people working paycheck to paycheck and if there's some arguing let's cut something else away from the workers to give them a little more in wages, I'm not sure I'd buy into that."

At Boloco, Warren, Durbin and Pepper listened as advocates like Finfer and Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman made the case for a minimum wage increase, arguing that inflation has eroded the value of the wage over time and that more money in the pockets of workers means more money being spent in local businesses.

Several minimum wage workers, including recent immigrants to the United States, also shared their stories.

Emmanuel Sebit, a 21-year-old baggage handler at Logan International Airport, came to the United States a year ago from South Sudan. He takes a bus from Lynn to Boston every day for his job at the airport where he works 30 hours a week, but still must rely on food stamps to pay his bills.

"I want to go to work and I want to go school at some point too. I want a family," he said.

Durbin said the notion of a minimum wage jobs as a "starter job" for teenagers is not accurate. He said the average worker receiving minimum wage in the United States is 35 years old and a quarter of those workers are parents and earn half their family income.

Comparing the minimum wage to other labor standards such as workplace safety and anti-child labor laws, Durbin said the tax code should be reformed to reward companies like Boloco that create good paying jobs for Americans.

Phil Edmundson, chair of Alliance for Business Leadership, said there are many business leaders in Massachusetts who favor raising the minimum wage. "We're in favor out of compassion and a sense of dignity that a higher wage can provide, but it's also good for the economy," he said.

Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said 500,000 Massachusetts workers would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage.