NEW BRITAIN — President Barack Obama is unlikely to get a hike in the minimum wage through Congress, but he encouraged states and businesses to take the lead during a half-hour speech Wednesday at Central Connecticut State University.
Costco, Gap, and even Cafe Beauregard in New Britain — where the president ate lunch Wednesday — have increased their employees’ wages to $10 an hour or more.
“Nobody who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty. That violates a basic sense of who we are. That’s why it’s time to give America a raise,” Obama told a packed auditorium.
The president’s push for an minimum wage increase is widely supported by Connecticut voters. Legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy are pushing this year to boost the state’s wage to $10.10 by 2017.
The president’s trip to the Nutmeg state comes a day after Quinnipiac University poll found, for the first time, that Connecticut voters disapprove of the president. But Obama was flanked on stage by the governors of Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island, as well as Malloy, who stepped into the national spotlight last week as a prominent supporter of Obama and his push to raise the minimum wage.
Malloy defended Obama last week against comments from Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who accused the president of “waving the white flag of surrender” by supporting a minimum wage hike.” Malloy recalled the incident Wednesday as he introduced Obama.
“Let me say, as I look around this room, I don’t see anyone ‘waving a white flag.’ Bobby Jindal did not make it to Connecticut,” he said.
During his remarks, Obama called for better job training opportunities, increased access to affordable higher education, and equal pay for women, but much of the speech centered on boosting the minimum wage.
The president praised Malloy and the other governors on stage for their support of minimum wage increases but urged people watching at home to contact their representatives and pressure them to support a federal increase.
‘If we’re going to finish the job, Congress has to get on board. This should not be that hard, in effect, because nearly three-fourths of Americans and about half of all Republicans support raising the minimum wage, but Republicans in Congress oppose it,” he said.
He joked that it’s because he proposed it that the Republican-controlled House opposes it.
“I don’t know if it’s because I proposed it. Maybe I should oppose raising the minimum wage,“ he quipped.
Obama said increasing the minimum wage would boost the economy by putting more money in the pockets of working people, who would spend the money at local businesses, who could then hire more workers.
“It’s common sense!” a woman in the crowd shouted.
“It’s common sense, that’s right,” the president answered.
After the speech, Lori Pelletier, head of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said the woman in the crowd “hit it right on the head.” Pelletier said it was great that Obama was in Connecticut to highlight pro-labor policies being adopted in New England, but wished he had taken the opportunity to show support for organized labor unions.
“The only thing I wish he had said was that the real ticket to the middle class is a union card and that collective bargaining brings you to the middle class,” she said. “Ten-ten an hour is terrific — it gets a lot of people out of poverty — but we still have a ways to go.”
Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, praised Obama’s speech for stressing that there are many who earn the minimum wage besides young people.
“People want to think that the majority of people earning the minimum wage are teenagers. [Obama] pointed out that that’s not true,” Tercyak said.
The Congressional Budget Office reported that 12 percent of those who make the minimum wage nationally are teenagers, and 13 percent of those earning the minimum wage are over 55.
Tercyak co-chairs the legislature’s Labor Committee, a panel that approved Connecticut’s minimum wage proposal during a meeting Tuesday. He acknowledged that the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature did not need a presidential visit to get the bill passed.
“We don’t need him to help us with the heavy lifting or anything but we’re the state that just proposed $10.10 . . . it makes perfect sense for him to come here and for the other governors to be here too. In some ways it wasn’t just a Connecticut event,” he said.
Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. said a minimum wage increase isn’t going to improve the economy in Connecticut or the rest of the nation.
“We all agree that more must be done to help those who struggle to make ends meet, but as long as the cost of doing business in Connecticut remains among the highest in the nation, good-paying jobs will continue to flee our state,” Labriola said.
There was no Republican support for an increase in the minimum wage last year when state lawmakers approved a bill that would bring it up to $9 an hour in January 2015. This year’s legislation would boost it to $10.10 an hour by 2017.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 53 percent of Republicans surveyed oppose a hike in the minimum wage, even though it remains popular with Democrats and unaffiliated voters. The poll found 71 percent of those surveyed supported an increase.