Kristi Allen / ctnewsjunkie
Fast food workers hit the street in Hartford (Kristi Allen / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Fast food employees rallied in Hartford against President Donald Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, while lawmakers met at the state Capitol to push for a $15 minimum wage in the new legislative session.

“Enacting a $15 minimum wage will pay dividends for over 300,000 workers in our state, who will put their money right back into our communities and our small businesses,” Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, said.

The Labor and Public Employees Committee voted to draft legislation that would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.

Connecticut last passed a minimum wage increase in 2014. The base wage was raised to $10.10 on Jan. 1 of this year. It was the last increase included in that bill.

Lawmakers argued that $10.10 still isn’t enough to get by in Connecticut and putting more money in the hands of workers could benefit the local economy.

“Big corporations are ripping off workers and they’re ripping off taxpayers. Low wages in Connecticut keep profits high, and then those dollars get sent to corporations and shareholders outside of our state,” Working Families Party State Director Lindsay Farrell said.

For several years, Democratic lawmakers have also proposed legislation that would fine big companies with more than 500 workers for not paying their employees $15 an hour. The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis has estimated that the legislation, dubbed “The Walmart Bill,” will bring in $305.1 million annually.

Lawmakers have said they could offset the amount of state assistance, such as Medicaid and food stamps, that are paid to those same workers.

“The more money you put in real people’s pockets, the more money is going to get spent. It doesn’t get shipped overseas. It doesn’t buy expensive pieces of art. It buys what people need every single day,” Connecticut AFL-CIO President Lori Pelletier said.

And while Democrats said raising the minimum wage isn’t a partisan issue, Republican lawmakers and a small business organization disagreed that the law could help the economy.

“Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is at best a short-term response to a long-term problem,” Senate Republican President Len Fasano said in as statement. “At worst, raising the minimum wage would accelerate the loss of jobs and result in an increase in costs for middle and working class families.”

Andrew Markowski, director of the Connecticut chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said “Small businesses in Connecticut simply cannot afford a government mandated $15-an-hour minimum wage, and neither can our state’s economy as a whole.”

Unlike in 2014, when the last minimum wage increase was adopted, Democrats no longer have a majority in both chambers of the legislature. A small margin in the House and a tied Senate could make passage difficult, but Democratic lawmakers maintained their optimism.

Kristi Allen / ctnewsjunkie
Lawmakers line up in support of a minimum wage hike (Kristi Allen / ctnewsjunkie)

“The proposal that James has put together is not everything the advocates want,” Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said. “This is a slow roll out. The full $15 isn’t achieved until 2022, so hopefully that will be a compromise that will lead to the bipartisan support that we’ve seen in the past for the minimum wage in Connecticut.”

Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, noted that the the minimum wage would be closer to $20 if it had kept pace with inflation since the 1980s.

“Fifteen dollars an hour is a modest request in terms of what a living wage is in Connecticut and what a minimum wage would be if it kept pace with inflation,” Albis said.

Demonstrators at the rally outside the Department of Labor offices in Hartford were in agreement that a $15 minimum wage would help them.

“My priorities are just trying to raise my family and take care of my children,” Yvonne Rodriguez, a Dunkin Donuts employee and mother of four, said. “A $15 minimum wage would make a hell of a difference to my family … We put in the work. Acknowledge us for our work. That’s all,” she said.

Along with a dozen or so other fast food employees and supporters, Rodriquez was protesting Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder. The demonstration was one of 30 organized across the country by the Fight for $15 group, which advocates for an increase in the minimum wage and a union for fast food employees.

Puzder, who is CEO of CKE, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants, has faced criticism over his opposition to raising the minimum wage and support for automation replacing workers in his stores.

According to the research from the University of California at Berkeley, 52 percent of the families of fast food workers rely on government assistance, totaling about $7 billion in government spending per year.

“We do deserve higher wages. We can’t afford the things we need. Parents can’t afford childcare. I don’t have health insurance anymore … a $15 minimum wage would change a lot of things,” Burger King employee Richard Grimes said.

Demonstrators Thursday overwhelmingly felt a Trump labor department would be friendly to workers.

“The whole attitude of a Puzder department would be to put pressure on workers through their employers to reduce wages and prevent an improvement in the standard of living,” Windsor Town Councilman Al Simon, who had shown up to support the demonstrators, said. “What America needs is higher incomes for average people.”