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The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday approved a bill combining business-friendly changes in the unemployment insurance system with a $3 increase in the minimum wage — from $8 to $11 over three years — moving to break a procedural impasse that threatened to derail efforts to boost wages for the state's lowest-paid workers.
The 34-5 vote will allow negotiations to begin with the House over a minimum wage bill, Democratic leaders said, and could keep the issue from landing before voters on the November ballot.
Increasing the $8 per hour minimum wage, unchanged since 2008, and reforming the unemployment insurance system to lower costs paid by businesses were named by legislative leaders as priorities for the current session, which ends July 31. But while the Senate originally opted to address the issues as distinct bills, the House rolled them into one package, creating a procedural obstacle to negotiations between the legislative chambers.
On Thursday, the Senate agreed to essentially combine the measures that had earlier been passed separately.
Sen. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich, Senate chairman of the Legislature's Labor and Workforce Development Committee, urged his colleagues not to revisit debate over the substance of the proposals.
"The task before us today is to get a vehicle, so that we can get it to the governor's desk and implement change to the citizens, to the working families who are the lower end of the economic spectrum and also to the businesses of Massachusetts," Wolf said.
Senate Republican leader Bruce Tarr made several attempts to amend the bill, all of which were soundly defeated.
The Senate is seeking to gradually hike the minimum wage to $11 per hour over the next three years and tie future increases to the rate of inflation.
The House bill calls for the hourly minimum wage to rise to $10.50 per hour over three years but without indexing to inflation.
Both bills also would raise the current $2.63 per hour minimum wage for tipped workers, such as restaurant servers. But while the Senate bill would go to $5.50 per hour over three years, the House bill would stop at $3.75 per hour.
The next step likely will be formation of a six-member conference committee that will try to forge a compromise bill. But with no guarantee of consensus, a group calling itself Raise Up Massachusetts has been gathering signatures to put a minimum wage increase before voters in November.
The unemployment insurance measure includes an updating of rating tables and expands an employer exemption for seasonal businesses but does not reduce employee benefits, as some business groups had proposed.
Business leaders say Massachusetts has some of the nation's highest unemployment insurance costs, making it less competitive.
Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick has signed a bill freezing unemployment insurance rates for the fourth consecutive year.
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