A proposal to increase Delaware's minimum wage to $15 an hour cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday despite vocal opposition from the business, hospitality and agriculture communities.
The Democrat-led Senate Labor Committee released the bill for consideration by the full Senate after a lengthy public hearing during which most speakers criticized the proposal.
The bill increases the minimum wage to $11 on Jan. 1, 2020, followed by a $1 raise at the start of each year until it hits $15 in 2024. Future increases to the minimum wage would then be automatically tied to increases in the consumer price index.
"It is about lifting working families out of poverty, helping them to become self-sufficient," said chief sponsor Sen. Darius Brown, a freshman Democrat from Wilmington.
Democratic lawmakers introduced the bill late last month despite a minimum-wage increase that was rammed through the General Assembly last year by majority Democrats in both chambers. That came in the middle of the night on the final day of the session. Under that bill, the minimum wage increased 50 cents to $8.75 in January and will increase another 50 cents to $9.25 per hour on Oct. 1.
Critics said raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in pay increases for state government workers and contractors, lead to less hiring, and will create a barrier for young people trying to enter the workforce.
"I think businesses will make rational decisions, and those rational decisions will lead to less opportunity," said Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover.
Nonprofit organizations serving the elderly and disabled said the wage increase would have a devastating effect on their ability to serve those populations and would require a corresponding increase in reimbursement rates from the state.
Business owners, meanwhile, would likely hire fewer young workers, given that they would be paid the same or more than experienced employees with more skills who, in turn, would demand higher pay themselves, critics said.
"Delaware will no longer be a good place to do business," said Mary Fennemore of Fifer Orchards, a family-run farming and agritourism business in central Delaware.
Supporters of the wage increase include the League of Women Voters, the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage, unemployed and immigrant workers, and the Service Employees International Union.
The SEIU, one of the country's largest labor unions, launched a campaign called the Fight for 15 in 2012 as part of an advocacy effort for fast-food workers. The $15 hourly wage has since become a talking point for many Democratic 2020 presidential candidates.