State politicians to take week-long minimum wage challenge

Monitor staff
Published: 7/7/2019 5:26:35 PM

It might be a raise from $100 annual legislative salary, but it isn’t much.

On Monday, four Democratic state lawmakers will take on a “minimum wage challenge.” The plan: attempt to get by living off of $290 a week. The end goal: the promotion of a bill to raise New Hampshire’s federally-mandated minimum wage to a state-set $12 an hour.

“It’s calling on elected officials to live on the budget on $290 a week,” said Viola Katusiime, an organizer with Granite State Organizing Project, which is helping host the challenge. “They’re going to put the money aside for housing, food, transportation and other basic needs like toiletries and childcare, and everything else that everyday people pay for.”

Joining in the effort are Concord Sen. Dan Feltes; Rep. Mark King of Nashua; Rep. Brian Sullivan of Grantham and Rep. Kris Schultz of Concord. The event comes a week after Democrats in the Legislature passed Senate Bill 10, which would raise the state minimum wage gradually to $12 an hour in 2022.

New Hampshire has followed the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour since 2009, and efforts have been made for years to reinstate a state threshold since the state minimum was repealed in 2011. But opponents – including Republican Gov. Chris Sununu – have long objected to the idea, labeling it a heavy-handed intrusion that would hurt businesses and cost jobs.

Restaurants and fast food establishments have said they already offer salaries above the minimum in order to attract employees. Critics of an increase have said that minimum wage jobs are not meant to be treated as a living wage, but rather an entry-level salary for first-time employees like teenagers. Adding a mandate, they say, could lead to tough choices for businesses with tight margins, which could mean eliminated positions or even automation.

Proponents of a mandatory wage increase counter that many in the state are effectively reliant on minimum wage jobs, often having to work more than one to provide basic needs. Approximately 11,800 Granite Staters work at or below minimum wage – many of whom are tipped employees – according to the Department of Employment Services. Raising the minimum would bring New Hampshire more in line with neighboring states and provide more spending money for low-income families to power the economy, advocates argue.

“Raising the minimum wage actually puts money into the pockets of low-wage workers,” said Katusiime. “They spend it and create jobs.”

Sununu has not explicitly weighed in on the bill, which is making its way to his desk, but he has expressed opposition to major increases to the federal wage in the past. House Republican Leader Dick Hinch, of Merrimack, encouraged Sununu to veto the increase, arguing it would have a “profound negative impact on our state’s small businesses” and would amount to “kicking them while they’re down.”

In participating in the challenge, lawmakers will attempt to see how far they can stretch $290 in the span of one week – the pre-tax earnings of a minimum wage worker who puts in $40 a week. Results will be rough estimations at best; the challenge assumes one 40-hour job and the participants have living situations of their own with built-in advantages.

But the challenge will still fall short of the real thing.

No one will be moving out of their house or apartment – though participants are encouraged to explore affordable rental listings should their condition be permanent, Katusiime said. Child care, mortgages and regular household bills will still be paid.

“We realize that most of these people probably have their own lives and more privilege to take this on, but we’re inviting them to try,” Katusiime said.

For some, planning for the challenge meant difficult conversations at home.

“We’re already going through the process,” Feltes said, referring to his wife. “Certainly the basic necessities are really important and we’ll be focusing in on those… We’ll just focus on groceries and basic necessities and diapers. That’s about it.”

For Feltes, who is a father and a former attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance, the challenge came down to an exercise in empathy.

“Having worked with many people in that situation, knowing that even one unexpected cost – be it a flat tire or what have you – can send the entire household into economic peril, no one who works hard should have to live in poverty,” Feltes said. “And that’s what this is all about.”


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