By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The House turned down an attempt to raise the minimum wage in New Hampshire to $15 an hour over three years, but did give initial approval to a bill requiring employers to compensate workers with unused vacation when they leave employment.
Wednesday’s session also saw the House give initial approval to a series of bills enhancing the benefits for Group II members of the NH Retirement Systems with a cost-of-living increase and rolling back reforms instigated more than a decade ago done to shore up the system.
The House voted down House Bill 57, 183-178, which would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $13.50 the first year, to $14.25 the second and $15 the third year.
The bill would have also restored a state minimum wage, which was eliminated in the 2011 session so the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is the limit in the state.
Supporters of the bill said there is strong support for a $15 minimum wage in the state from both Republicans and Democrats.
“This is not a radical thing we are throwing at people,” said Rep. Kristina Schultz, D-Concord. “All our neighbors are on the path or at $15 an hour.”
She noted that over 110,000 people in the state make the minimum wage, which is down about 25 percent from a year ago, but still a lot of people.
The minimum wage was never intended to bring broad prosperity to everybody, but instead to keep people out of poverty, she said.
“In New Hampshire people have to go onto public assistance because they are paid a wage too low,” Schultz said. “They are not asking for a hand-out and it is up to us to make sure they do not have to go on public assistance.”
But Rep. Will Infantine, R-Manchester, said businesses have had to adjust and they have raised wages in order to attract workers.
He said on the way to Concord he heard an advertisement offering $35 an hour for a paving crew.
“Business has done a better job than the government,” Infantine said, “when it comes to wages.”
The Senate has already defeated a similar bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The House did approve House Bill 74 which would require companies with 15 employees or more to include earned but unused vacation time in final wages.
State law provides no protection for employees terminated due to layoff or sale of the company, although the unused time is listed on an employee’s pay stub.
Under state law, companies can make it their policy or practice to not pay for unused vacation time.
Opponents of the bill said it is hard to pass a bill that covers all the different kinds of businesses in the state and their different policies on unused time.
Infantine said the legislature has tried its best to let businesses make their own decisions and how they offer benefits to their workers.
But supporters said the bill would protect employees who have earned time off and then to have it taken away is not fair to workers.
Some workers who believe they have unused time believe they will be able to use, find they are terminated under a layoff or sale of a company, said Rep. Michael Cahill, D-Newmarket, only to find they do not and may or may not have the money to pay the mortgage or other bills.
Cahill reminded the House members they not only represent business owners but also represent workers.
The bill passed on a 187-174 vote and will now go to the Finance Committee for review before a final House vote.
The House also treated police, firefighters and corrections officers to enhanced and increased retirement benefits.
House Bill 436 would change the way retirement benefits are determined for Group II members, essentially walking back changes made during the 2011 session.
The current formula uses the years of service and the average of the top five years of highest earnings to determine a retiree’s benefit, but the change would return the formula to the top three years of earnings as it was before the changes in 2011.
At the time the change applied to every employee who was not yet fully vested in the retirement system or 10 years of service.
According to Rep. Matthew Simon, R-Littleton, the change caught people who had begun employment with the understanding of how retirement benefits would be determined and then in 2011 that was changed if the employee had less than 10 years of service.
Simon said employees at the time did not agree to the new one as it was not the one when they signed on to.
“We do not typically change laws for people with a different understanding,” Simon said, “that is not the way we do things.”
The change would take 10 years to process all those who were affected by the change, he said. He said the change will make it easier to retain police, firefighters and corrections officers who are in short supply.
But Rep. Chris True, R-Sandown, said the bill would undo the pension reforms of 2011 for one small group of people, 1,731 police, firefighters and corrections officers.
He said the constitution requires the common good be done, not one man or a class of men with private interests.
“I feel like I am on a runaway train and there is nothing I can do about it,” True said. “This is not for the common good or the community.”
The bill passed on a 282-80 vote and will be reviewed by the Finance Committee before a final vote by the House.
The House also approved House Bill 71 which would provide a 5 percent cost of living increase for Group II members who have been retired from 10 to 20 years and a 10 percent cost of living increase for those retired 20 or more years.
Simon opposed the bill saying members of Group II may retire at age 52 and receive full benefits, which is about $57,000 for a firefighter and he or she will earn about $800,000 in benefits before age 67 when everyone else in the retirement system receives full benefits after 30 years.
That means a firefighter will receive more in benefits in those 15 years than a Group I retiree does before he or she dies.
And he said the people at the low end of the benefit scale will not receive the biggest increase, the ones at the top will. This bill fails to get the money to the people who need it the most, Simon said.
But Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Nashua, said since the special account was eliminated in 2012, any cost of living raise comes at the whim of the legislature.
“It is the state’s responsibility to provide retirees with a cost of living raise,” O’Brien said. “To those who say this is not the time, I ask when is it?”
The bill passed on a 192-167 vote and will go to the Finance Committee for review before a final House vote.
The House also approved increasing the death benefit for Group II members’ families if they die in the line of duty from 50 percent of what would be the members retirement benefit to 100 percent.
The bill was approved on a 282-80 vote and will be reviewed by the Finance Committee before a final House vote.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.