A group of Democratic lawmakers kicked off their efforts to raise the state’s minimum wage by $1.50 over the next two years at a press conference Wednesday. Opponents got their chance to push back at a public hearing later in the day.

The minimum wage is currently $8.25, where it’s been since 2010. The minimum wage bill raised by the Labor Committee this year is more aggressive than a bill that failed to pass last year, which in its revised form, would have increased the minimum wage 50 cents over two years.

And unlike last year, there’s no legislative leaders throwing their political clout behind the measure, like former House Speaker Chris Donovan did last year. Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, testified in favor of the bill Thursday, but the support of the rest of his caucus is uncertain.

Reached by phone, Senate President Donald Williams said he hasn’t yet had a chance to gauge support for this year’s bill among Senate Democrats. Last year’s bill passed the House, but failed to be raised for a vote in the Senate. This year’s bill is a Senate bill, so the House will only get a chance to take it up if it passes the Senate.

Sen. Cathy Osten and Rep. Peter Tercyak, the committee’s co-chairs, called for an increase in the minimum wage at a press conference with organized labor leaders and some minimum wage workers.

Asia Avery, a 20-year-old student and restaurant worker from Stafford Springs, said it has been difficult getting by on her minimum wage job while going to school. She said her pay barely covers tuition expenses, insurance, and frequent repairs to her 17-year-old vehicle.

“Raising the minimum wage will enable me to earn enough to fund my education, invest in my future, finish school and become a productive member of Connecticut’s workforce, giving back to our economy,” she said.

Osten pointed to the high cost of living in Connecticut and said raising the minimum wage would help low-income residents.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Asia Avery (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

“The raising of the minimum wage will do more to raise the standards of living in the state of Connecticut than almost anything else,” she said.

The Rev. Laurel Scott, of the North United Methodist Church in Manchester, said the current minimum wage is not enough for workers earning it to support their families or meet basic expenses.

“This is not a living wage. It is merely a minimum wage,” she said.

However, opponents of increasing the minimum wage argue it increases the burden on the state’s businesses, which inadvertently hurts the people lawmakers are striving to help.

Last year, the bill stalled in the Senate when there was not enough support among the Democratic majority to raise the bill. Many felt that because of the tough economic conditions it was the wrong time to increase costs on businesses.

Nicole Griffin, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said her organization will oppose the legislation again this year.

“It’s a bad time to increase the minimum wage,” said Griffin, whose organization took the lead in lobbying against last year’s bill. “The economy hasn’t really improved much since the last year when this proposal was before us.”

Griffin said restaurants, whose employees often receive tips that supplement their wages, would be impacted by the increase more than most industries. She said there are some restaurants in the state where employees are already making between $15 and $25 an hour after tips.

“I don’t think it’s government’s job to step in and tell those employers they should be giving those employees a raise,” she said. “There are folks in those restaurants making less than that who might be asking for a raise, might be deserving of a raise. If this bill were to pass there’s just not enough money to go around.”

Griffin said restaurants already are refraining from hiring new employees because of a law passed in 2011 that requires some employers to give their employees paid time off when they are sick. Connecticut was the first state to pass such a requirement and critics said it sent a message that the state was hostile to businesses.

During Wednesday’s public hearing, the same criticism was offered over the proposal to increase the minimum wage.

“It tells people we’re not a business-friendly state because we’re going after businesses again,” said Rep. Anthony D’Amelio, R-Waterbury, who owns a restaurant.

It’s an argument Osten sought to counter during the earlier press conference. She pointed to a list of state minimum wages compiled by the U.S. Labor Department and Forbes magazine’s recent ranking of the best states for business.

“When you cross-checked those two lists you see that a state’s minimum wage has no direct correlation with its ranking as business friendly or not,” she said.

But Rep. David Rutigliano, R-Trumbull, who owns a restaurant group, said small business owners in Connecticut have already experienced “a perfect storm of bad news” and don’t need an additional expense.

“Our insurance rates this year have increased 25 percent in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Some of our fellow restaurant association members had their rates doubled. Our unemployment assessment this past year reached $20,000,” he said.

However, Jeannette Wicks-Lim, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, told the committee that her research suggested the wage increase typically only results in a modest cost increase to businesses, relative to their revenue. She said businesses would have to raise the costs of their products or services a relatively small amount in order to avoid being impacted by the increase.

“If you think about a $20 meal at a restaurant, what we’re talking about is raising that $20 meal by 20 cents . . . that would cover the entire cost increase that business would face from a 20 percent minimum wage hike,” she said.