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Community and labor put paid family leave and Fight for 15 on the ballot

WORCESTER, Mass. – A group of activists working with Raise Up Massachusetts dropped off 1,489 signatures at City Hall this morning, in hopes of securing paid family medical leave and a raise in minimum wage for all Massachusetts workers.

Raise Up Massachusetts, or RUM, is a grassroots coalition of many dozens of labor unions, faith groups, and community organizations. Those at City Hall this morning included City Councilor Khrystian King, School Committee Member Dante Comparetto, representatives of SEIU Local 509, the Worcester Food Policy Council, high school students, immigration activists, and others.

Calvin Feliciano of SEIU Local 509, South High Community School student Shirley Acero, Claremont Academy student Sherlin Santillan, School Committee member Dante Comparetto, food policy council member Martha Assefa, and Dan Margolis.

The question on paid family and medical leave would, if voted into law, ensure that workers across the commonwealth receive paid time off to recover from illness, to take care of family members who are injured or ill, to care for a new child, or to deal with needs that arise when a family member is deployed to active military service. These workers would receive 90 percent of their average weekly pay, up to $1,000.

Employees taking paid leave would receive partial wage replacement equal to a percentage of their average weekly wages, with a maximum weekly benefit of $1,000 for up to 16 weeks. Paid leave would last up to 16 weeks to care for a seriously ill or injured family member or to bond with a new child (family leave), and up to 26 weeks for an employee’s own serious illness or injury (medical leave). The benefits would be paid for through an insurance program resembling the current unemployment system.

The signatures, along with thousands more collected statewide, will put two questions on the ballot for voters to decide in November. The first question will ask voters to approve a raise in the state’s minimum wage by one dollar each year, until 2022, when it would reach $15. After that, there would be a yearly cost of living adjustment. Tipped workers would have their wages raised from the current minimum of $3.75 hourly to 60 percent of the new minimum wage, or nine dollars hourly in 2022.

Rep. Dan Donahue, D-Worcester, introduced similar legislation in the House, and a companion bill was introduced in the State Senate by Sen. Ken Donnelly. Advocates hope to pass the wage increase in the legislature, but, if not, local voters will decide the issue.

“We’re fighting for a minimum wage that protects all workers, that increases tipped minimum wage to 60 percent, that protects time-and-a-half pay for workers, and a wage that does not discriminate against teenagers,” said Martha Assefa of the Worcester Food Policy Council.

Currently, RUM is fighting against a “compromise” being pushed in the legislature that would establish a separate, lower minimum wage for teenagers.

Sherlin Santillan, a 16-year-old junior at the public Claremont Academy high school in Worcester, attended this morning – she had the day off from school because she was doing well enough in all her classes that she did not need to take a final exam – to support the legislation. She said she was troubled by the currently low minimum wage, and efforts to push a lower-tier teen wage.

“Worcester is getting more costly,” Santillan said. “The apartments are a big example. This is my future. I’m starting to look into moving out and it’s not looking so cute.”

Santillan’s statement is backed up by a recent article in the Boston Globe, which showed that there is no state in America where a worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment on minimum wage. As the article notes, even in Arkansas, the most inexpensive state, a worker would need to earn $13.84 hourly – $2.84 more than the current Massachusetts minimum wage – to afford a two-bedroom apartment. A recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that Massachusetts is the sixth least affordable state, with an hourly wage of $28.64 – or more than two full-time jobs at the current minimum wage – needed to safely afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Voters appear to agree that something needs to be done. While only 20,000 signatures were needed (10,000 for each question) to get on the ballot, organizers turned in more than seven percent of that amount alone this morning in Worcester. More than 62,000 are being turned in statewide – and this was the legally necessary second round of signatures.

In the first round, in 2017, RUM collected a total of 274,652 signatures, far exceeding the goal of 64,750 for each question.

“In five short weeks the community and labor and faith [groups] really came together to make this happen,” Assefa said, referring to this round of signature gathering. “We’re grateful for the voters of Worcester for speaking up with us.”

Image: Local activists after dropping off signatures. From right, Dan Margolis, City Councilor Khrystian King, Claremont student Sherlin Santillan, South High Community School student Shirley Acero.

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