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Labor, business groups debate proposed minimum wage hike
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Labor, business groups debate proposed minimum wage hike

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Montana’s minimum wage would rise from its current $8.75 an hour to $12 an hour over the course of three years, under a proposal brought by a Philipsburg lawmaker.

Democratic Sen. Mark Sweeney told the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee on Friday that his bill would offer dignity to essential workers mired in poverty wages.

“They’ve been on the front lines everyday during the pandemic, ensuring we can buy groceries, eat at restaurants and helping keep our Main Street businesses open,” Sweeney said. “They provided the needed services in retail, nursing homes and the health care industry, they care for our children and grandchildren.”

Proposals to hike the state’s minimum wage have been shot down by the Legislature in both of the past two sessions.

Senate Bill 187 won support from labor groups, including the AFL-CIO, the Montana Federation of Public Employees and SEIU Healthcare 775, a union representing long-term care workers.

Representatives from the Montana Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses spoke against the bill, arguing that the market is a better guide for workers’ salaries. They also said it would disproportionately impact small businesses at a time when they’re already reeling from the pandemic’s economic fallout.

“It’s those small businesses that offer those starting people the best opportunities and the best education, and take an interest in their workers,” said Bridger Mahlum, a lobbyist for the Chamber. “Artificially raising that minimum wage puts those small businesses at a disadvantage.”

He added that business owners are also not just burdened by the need to pay workers more if the minimum wage is hiked, but they would also have to shell out more money for payroll taxes, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.

Sen. Cydnie Boland, D-Great Falls, noted that despite the business community’s long-standing resistance to minimum wage increases, she didn’t see any other compelling solutions to help workers unable to make ends meet without public assistance.

“The low wage issue has been around for years, and nothing seems to be changing,” Boland said. “We’re not moving forward and people are falling behind … How can we get our workers out of this never-ending cycle that they’re in?”

The committee did not take any immediate action on the bill.

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