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As new year turns, minimum wage climbs

  • Betsy Frederick is the owner of Raven Used Books on Old South Street in Northampton. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Betsy Frederick, owner of Raven Used Books in Northampton, helps a pair of customers at the shop on Old South Street on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • John Papas is the owner of Village Pizza on Union Street in Easthampton. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • John Papas is the owner of Village Pizza on Union Street in Easthampton. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kevin Chateauneuf is the owner of Nick’s Nest on Northampton Street (Rt. 5) in Holyoke. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kevin Chateauneuf is the owner of Nick’s Nest on Northampton Street (Rt. 5) in Holyoke. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nick Seamon is the owner of The Black Sheep deli and bakery on Main Street in Amherst. With his business closed for winter, Seamon says his main concern is the lack of state and federal support. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nick Seamon is the owner of The Black Sheep deli and bakery on Main Street in Amherst. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jim Ingram is the owner of Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream on Cottage Street in Easthampton. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jim Ingram is the owner of Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream on Cottage Street in Easthampton. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2021

NORTHAMPTON — The new year ushers in a higher minimum wage during a time when many low-wage workers and small businesses alike are feeling the financial pressures of the pandemic.

The minimum wage increase from $12.75 to $13.50 per hour starting Jan. 1 is mandated by the “Grand Bargain” which became law in June 2018. Under this legislation, the state minimum wage will rise each year until it reaches $15 per hour in 2023. Tipped wages also increased to $5.55 per hour, and if an employee’s wages and tips don’t total $13.50 per hour, employers have to pay them the difference. A paid family and medical leave program also goes into effect this year.

Jim Ingram, owner of Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream & Candy Store in Easthampton, said he anticipated the wage increase, as it’s been increasing incrementally over the past few years.

“I’m really getting used to it,” he said. “I get it. It’s important and a living wage is important for a lot of people.”

I think the trade-off is when it costs businesses more to operate, they have to stay in business, they have to pass along some of that cost to customers,” he said, noting that most of his customers understand price bumps.

Ingram evaluates his prices every year, and the pandemic has already brought additional costs like gloves.

“I sell ice cream so I can’t really raise (the price of) a cone too much,” he said.

Kevin Chateauneuf, owner of Nick’s Nest — a Holyoke eatery whose specialty is hot dogs — said he’s had to raise hot dog prices every year since the minimum wage went up. But, there are limits, he said.

“People only buy a product at a good price. You can’t keep charging everything you want,” he said. “How much can I charge for a hot dog before they say, ‘you’re nuts?’”

Part of the issue for Chateauneuf is that when the minimum wage increases, he is in a situation where workers with more experience are paid the same as new ones. He said he hires a lot of teenagers.

“I’m going to give them the same pay that I’m paying some lady that’s 32? That’s where we have a problem.” He added, “I’m going to hire someone who has no experience and pay the same as someone who locks the door?”

Those with more experience generally make more at the restaurant, he said.

“We take care of our employees. We pay our employees good money. But at some point, we can’t be told how to run our business,” he said.

Some say the minimum wage is not high enough.

“Sure it was a win, but it’s not enough,” said Alicia Fleming, co-executive director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, said of the wage increase set to eventually reach $15 per hour. “People deserve and need so much more.”

Massachusetts Jobs with Justice is a coalition focused on workers’ rights and has a western Massachusetts office in Springfield.

Before working for that organization, Fleming was a volunteer. The western Massachusetts native remembers standing in the Holyoke Mall several years ago with her then-five-year-old gathering signatures to increase the minimum wage.

“I think an increase is a step in the right direction,” Fleming said. “It’s a step we saw coming a while back. Given the current situation, it’s clearly not enough in my opinion and our organization’s opinion.”

Lily Huang, Fleming’s co-director at Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, echoed that sentiment in a recent statement from Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition that gathered signatures to get a $15 minimum wage question on the ballot.

“While many white-collar workers have spent the pandemic sheltering in their home offices and seeing their savings accounts grow, hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers have spent the past nine months struggling to afford protective equipment, food, and rent while working on the frontlines to keep others safe,” Huang said.

Raise Up Massachusetts said in the statement that last year, most who saw a bump in the minimum wage were adults. Sixty percent were women, and 40% were people of color, according to the organization.

Minimum wage increases in 2021 affect some of the employees at Easthampton Village Pizza, such as delivery drivers, said John Papas, who has owned the business since 2001. Papas usually raises prices by 25 to 50 cents each year.

“For me, it’s a standard cost of business increase,” he said, adding that wage increases are “not one of those things I lose an ounce of sleep over … For me, it’s not a bogeyman thing.”

But he said he’s been lucky. So far, his business, which mostly relied on takeout before COVID-19, has weathered the pandemic well.

“I knock on wood every day,” Papas said.

Employees at Raven Used Books in downtown Northampton are currently making more than minimum wage — the shop has increased wages in anticipation of the hikes statewide, according to Betsy Frederick, who has owned the shop for 27 years.

“We’re angling to stay ahead of the curve,” Frederick said.

Frederick is much more focused on the impact of the pandemic rather than the minimum wage. She described business as “terrible.”

“We’re down by at least half … Now the cold months are coming, and I expect it to get worse,” she said.

Some employees have voluntarily left the store during the pandemic, and she has not replaced them.

“I’m going on a skeleton crew to try to reduce my payroll in the face of everything to try to make it through to the other side,” she said.

The minimum wage is also low on Amherst business owner Nick Seamon’s list of concerns. Seamon has owned Black Sheep Deli in downtown Amherst since 1986. Few people at the deli make less than $15 per hour, he said, but his business is closed for winter and he hopes to reopen in April.

“Where is the federal and state support to keep us going?” he asked. Without that, he worries “Amherst will turn into a ghost town.” He added, “We’re not asking for profit, but we want to pay the bills.”

He said he applied for an economic injury disaster loan, but “we haven’t heard a peep from the feds. They are pathetically slow getting back to us.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.