By BOB SALSBERGBOSTON (AP) a¿¿ Business leaders appear open to supporting a modest hike in the state's $8 per hour minimum wage, but only if coupled with business-friendly reforms in the unemployment insurance system. The Massachusetts Senate approved a stand-alone bill last week that would raise the minimum wage to $11 per hour by 2016 and index future increases to inflation. The House has not yet acted on the measure. Many business leaders warn that a hike in the minimum wage could force employers to trim jobs and price some low-skilled workers out of the labor force. Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, said Monday that his influential group would be receptive to a minimum wage increase that was attached to an overhaul of what he called a broken unemployment insurance system a¿¿ one he said saddles employers with the second-highest payroll taxes in the nation after Rhode Island. "This is probably the best opportunity in years for the Legislature, under the leadership of the House, to combine overdue reforms that bring us in line with the rest of the country, with some relief for low-wage earners," Anderson said after meeting privately with House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop. Anderson said a survey of his group's membership showed nearly 80 percent opposed to a stand-alone minimum wage increase. But the same survey showed that 67 percent would agree to hike the wage to $10 per hour if it was not indexed to inflation and was accompanied by two major changes in the unemployment insurance system. One proposed change would lower the duration of unemployment benefits from 30 weeks to 26 weeks. The other would require workers to be employed for at least 20 weeks before being eligible for benefits, up from the current 15 weeks. Such changes would bring Massachusetts in line with national norms, Anderson said.
The council demonstrated its clout earlier this year as one of the business groups that successfully lobbied the Legislature to repeal the "tech tax," a short-lived sales tax on computer and software services."I think the lesson on the tech tax was that if we pursue policies that provide negative consequences to our ability to grow and retain jobs in Massachusetts, that's a problem for our overall competitiveness," Anderson said. The minimum wage has gone unchanged since 2008, leaving many low-paid workers in poverty, advocates of a higher wage say. The state, meanwhile, has frozen unemployment insurance rates paid by employers for the past four years as a patch against adding further business costs. DeLeo has publicly signaled support for unemployment insurance reform, as have Senate President Therese Murray and Gov. Deval Patrick. But the Democratic leaders have yet to fashion a specific plan, and obstacles remain to compromise in the current legislative session. Sen. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich said he is among those who would prefer to see the minimum wage and unemployment insurance issues tackled separately, rather than in a single package. "The more complex you make a bill, the more difficult it is for it to emerge as final legislation," said Wolf, a strong backer of the Senate minimum wage bill. Looming over the debate is a proposed ballot question that would raise the minimum wage to $10.50 per hour in two years. Steve Crawford, a spokesman for the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, said the group expects to deliver nearly 150,000 signatures to the Secretary of State next month in the hopes of placing the question on the November 2014 ballot. Crawford said he would not speculate on what the Legislature might do in the interim.