By STEVE LeBLANCBOSTON (AP) a¿¿ The Massachusetts Senate has voted to raise the state's minimum wage from $8 to $11 per hour by 2016 and tie subsequent increases to inflation. The bill, approved by a 32-7 vote Tuesday, would increase the wage for the state's lowest-paid workers in increments over the next three years, starting in July 2014. After 2016, future increases would be linked to the Consumer Price Index for the Northeast. There are currently 10 other states that index their minimum wages to the rate of inflation. The bill now heads to the state House. Gov. Deval Patrick has expressed general support for the idea of increasing the state's minimum wage. The state's minimum wage has not changed since 2008 and isn't automatically adjusted for inflation. The legislation also would require the state's minimum wage to always be at least 50 cents higher than the federal minimum, which is $7.25 per hour. During the debate, senators approved an amendment that would raise the minimum wage for tipped employees to half of the minimum wage for other workers. The minimum wage for tipped employees like waiters is $2.63 per hour in Massachusetts. Backers of the higher wage point out that an individual earning a minimum wage and trying to support a family often has to rely on federal benefits like food stamps to help make ends meet. "Hard working people working full time and being paid our minimum wage now are living in poverty," said Sen. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich. "Raising the minimum wage is an important step to rebalancing our top-heavy economy." Senate Republicans said they backed some increase, but said the minimum wage can't be taken out of context. They said other actions are needed including lowering the cost of health care, easing up the cost of unemployment insurance for businesses, and increasing training opportunities to help workers get better-paying jobs.
"We are continuing to take a myopic view of how to help low wage workers," said Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester. "We shouldn't hold the minimum wage up as a thing to aspire to."Business groups have warned that the higher wage might force employers to pass on the cost to consumers or cut worker benefits. Those opposed to the increase also said it could inadvertently hurt teenagers trying to land summer or part-time jobs, effectively pricing them out of the labor market. Critics of the increase in the minimum wage for tipped workers said it could harm the owners of restaurants that typically operate on narrow profit margins. The vote comes a day after a group backing proposed ballot questions that would increase the state's minimum wage and require all workers be given earned sick time said it has collected about 270,000 signatures from Massachusetts residents, nearly four times the number needed to put the question before voters next year. Massachusetts currently has the third highest minimum wage in New England behind Connecticut ($8.25) and Vermont ($8.60). Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steven Grossman a¿¿ both of whom are running for the Democratic nomination for governor next year a¿¿ said they also support increasing in the minimum wage.