Shahera Zallum, of Cambridge, says she was 17 when she dropped out of school to help her family and assist in paying the bills.
Now 19, Zallum works at a McDonald's in the city, where, several months into her current role, she doesn't get full-time hours. When she does work she's paid $9.50 an hour — just above the $9 state minimum wage.
But Zallum and other low-wage workers in high-cost Greater Boston say it's not nearly enough.
“Everybody has a different situation, everybody lives a different way," said Zallum, who has big, expressive eyes and was wrapped in a black leather jacket when we met at a coffee shop. "I can only really speak for myself. But I know the life that I currently live, it’s not any way to really live.”
A broader effort is underway in Zallum's home of Cambridge. There, councilors are exploring a local $15 pay floor for all workers in the city.
“It's, as far as I know, unprecedented in Massachusetts,” Bill McKinney, director of the state Department of Labor Standards, said of the effort.
But before Cambridge debates the issue — there's a city council election Tuesday, and some candidates have placed support for a $15 minimum wage on their mailings -- there's a more basic question: Do cities and towns in Massachusetts have the power to set their own wage levels?
'It's Our Job To Be Visionary'
“I think Americans increasingly are recognizing that our minimum wage … hasn’t kept pace with the rapidly increasing cost of living," said City Councilor Nadeem Mazen. He's spearheading the effort for the "People's Republic" to follow Seattle, San Francisco and other progressive municipalities in enacting a local pay floor above the state minimum.
Cambridge has had a Living Wage Ordinance, covering city workers and contractors, since 1999, and it's adjusted for inflation. It's now up to about $15 an hour.
But when Mazen, who was elected to the council in 2013, first sought a $15 minimum wage for all workers in Cambridge, the city solicitor issued an opinion that said "it appears that a minimum wage ordinance would lie outside of the City's authority under the Massachusetts Constitution."
Councilor Mazen disagrees with that. He said after meeting with legal experts he believes there's a "legally defensible" claim to his effort.
And he says the solicitor's "narrow opinion" just addressed an ordinance -- as opposed to other avenues -- so he's now exploring additional options, like incorporating wage levels into business permits.
"It's the city solicitor's job to be conservative, it's our job to be visionary," Mazen said.
'We Want To Get It Right'
Others are more cautious.
In a statement, City Manager Richard Rossi said: “I am in favor of improving working conditions through raising the minimum wage as long as the increase is done in a manner that is consistent with State Law."
And, Rossi added: "The City should follow the advice of the City Solicitor.”
Vice Mayor Dennis Benzan, who's in his first term on the council as well, said he "absolutely" supports wage earners making $15 an hour, especially "at a time now where the cost of living is going way up."
But Benzan, who's also a lawyer, said, "it's my clear understanding that this clearly lies outside of the city's authority."
Benzan added he doesn't want to "mislead anyone into thinking that there’s something that I can do when I know that I don’t have the power."
When asked about enacting a higher minimum wage through permitting, for instance, he said he thinks it "would certainly" be challenged in court.
"We want to get it right," Benzan said of the $15 minimum wage push.
Councilor Mazen is unbowed.
At a well-attended public hearing Mazen held in early September, a motion was passed to convene a task force on the issue. Mazen says he has his work cut out for him to explain his rationale and his motivation.
"I want to actually see action every time we meet, and I want to see progress toward a viable solution," he said.
The 'Next Step' On Minimum Wage
A solution could come from Beacon Hill.
Cambridge Councilors Mazen and Benzan have both urged workers and advocates to lobby legislators on a bill, proposed by state Sen. Dan Wolf, that would authorize municipal increases in minimum wages.
Wolf echoes Benzan in worrying about a court challenge from an employer if any community seeks a wage hike without legal "clarity."
“Unless we pass this legislation, there’s really no capacity to do that currently in Massachusetts," said Wolf, a Harwich Democrat.
Wolf has also proposed a bill that would raise the state minimum wage to $15 for fast-food and big box retail workers, and he backed the successful legislation last year to raise the overall state minimum wage. He sees his bill to allow community-based minimum wages as the "next step."
And he sees the idea of a locally crafted minimum wage gaining traction.
"As Cambridge heightens awareness on this issue, I think we’re going to hear more and more towns and cities weighing in on this and wanting to do it," said Wolf, who added as examples that he's heard interest from his constituent towns of Provincetown and Brewster on the issue.
'Legal Clarity' Might Lead To A Real Debate
Should Wolf's legislation be enacted -- or if Cambridge pursues a higher minimum wage through another avenue -- a debate on the issue would begin there in earnest. Would a hike be phased in gradually, and over how many years? Would tipped workers continue to have a lower pay floor?
Those questions are key for Steve Kurland, a GM and partner at Za and EVOO restaurants in Kendall Square, which have about 70 employees.
Kurland spoke at Mazen's council hearing in September, and in a follow-up interview at a corner table in Za, he emphasized that he's in favor of higher wages generally, but he would want to ensure any increase is phased in, and that tipped employees are still recognized as a different classification of worker. Kurland says his servers earn $3 an hour — the state minimum for tipped workers -- but then make on average $15-25 an hour in tips on top of that.
“I am all in favor of getting people a living wage that works," Kurland said, while also noting that higher pay means higher costs for employee benefits, as well. "My concerns are how we get there and that everybody gets input, and that everybody gets treated fairly. For us, if we tomorrow went to a $15 an hour minimum wage for all our staff [servers and kitchen workers], we couldn’t stay open. We wouldn’t be a viable restaurant.”
On the issue, Mazen knows he would need to involve local businesses to assuage what he calls their reflexive concerns about higher pay.
But Mazen, a fast and passionate speaker, says a higher minimum wage is not only economically just, but also good economics. He says putting more money in workers' pockets empowers them to spend more in their communities, and he says Cambridge, with its high median income, could withstand any small price increases that might come with higher wages.
Mazen says Cambridge should be at the vanguard of the move for a higher minimum wage, and, in fact, he's surprised it didn't lead cities like Seattle, San Francisco and LA.
“We should be — and have in other issues been — leaders in socially just issues, and could be a leader in economic justice," he said. "An initiative like this grows the economy. And if we could pursue it more rabidly here and across the country, we could have an America with a middle class again. Right now it’s evaporating and it’s scary for a lot of people.”
Critics, though, say the minimum wage isn't such a straightforward issue. They say higher pay floors increase labor costs, which force employers to raise prices and/or cut other wages, benefits or jobs. And they say there are more effective methods of assisting the low income, like the earned income tax credit.
Zallum, the 19-year-old McDonald's worker, is more focused on her pay than on process — or the long-running economic debate about minimum wages. She hopes to get her GED, go to college, and become a teacher and a writer. She says that is difficult with her current low-paying job.
“I think $15 an hour and a decent amount of work hours a week would provide me with stability, and that’s all I really want at this point," she said.
This segment aired on November 2, 2015.