The fate of many of Maine’s wage employees lies in the hands of 13 lawmakers on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

They are currently debating a number of minimum wage bills that could be voted out of committee during the next few days. Since a minimum wage was first established in Maine more than a half-century ago, this is currently the longest stretch Maine have gone without an increase.

Maine workers can’t wait any longer.

Wages in this state are an average of 20 percent lower than wages across the U.S., according to Charles Colgan, associate director of the University of Southern Maine Center for Business and Economic Research.

Maine workers find themselves working at least full-time but still living in or near poverty, while having to care for their families at the same time. They have seen the prices of everything go up except the price of their undervalued labor, and they are tired of being thrown a small token raise every five or six years.

They want meaningful, lasting change.

What is often missing from the minimum wage debate is an informed discussion about inflation.

Opponents of raising wages often claim that an increase will cause goods and services to cost more. In reality, inflation has been happening anyway, as it does in any advanced economy.

When this happens without an increase in wages, workers become less able to pay the increased cost of the goods and services they need to survive. For example, in the late 1960s the minimum wage had the buying power of about $10.50 in today’s dollars, significantly higher than $7.50.

As a fix to this problem, some of my colleagues have introduced minimum wage bills that “index” to inflation, which is to say that if inflation goes up, say 2 percent in a year, the minimum wage will rise 2 percent, as well.

I introduced a minimum wage bill, LD 843, that goes a step further.

I believe Maine workers have been working at a very generous 20 percent discount for too long. They deserve the same respect that many workers across the nation already enjoy. That is why my bill would index the minimum wage to the national average wage instead of the rate of inflation. That would ensure that as other workers across the nation enjoy raises, so would Maine wage workers.

My bill would gradually raise the minimum wage to $12 through the course of five years and, at that point, index it to a national standard. This would give Maine workers a reasonable raise and also take the minimum wage issue out of the hands of politicians.

Critics of raising the wage state that it would cause job losses, but this has not proved to be true in other states. According to the Federal Department of Labor, those states and cities that have recently raised the minimum wage have added jobs to their economy at a faster rate than those that have not.

Most importantly, however, raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do. Maine wage workers should be able to rely on decent and humane minimum standards in the workplace and should share in whatever wealth they have helped to create. They know their labor is worth considerably more than what they are being paid, and they deserve a fair deal.

Rep. Gina Melaragno represents House District 62 in Auburn.

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