Sara Smith, retired Pembroke teacher

Retired teacher Sara Smith of Pembroke testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday in support of a higher minimum wage for New Hampshire’s low-skilled workers.

CONCORD — Sara Smith, a retired teacher from Pembroke, recalls how as a young worker in retail decades ago she was able to pay her rent, buy food and live independently even though she was only paid minimum wage at the time.

Today, she volunteers as an English tutor for recent immigrants to the state, and finds the contrast striking. She used one student’s situation as an example.

“She works for a big retailer in Concord, doing exactly what I did 40 years ago, putting things on shelves, helping customers,” said Smith. “She makes slightly more than minimum wage, bringing home about $400 a week.”

Despite the stereotype of minimum wage workers, Smith’s student is not a teenager. “She’s a mother with two teenage kids, and this is what she has to live on,” said Smith. “She qualifies for food stamps, rental assistance and Medicaid. In other words, she is considered to be living in poverty.”

Smith was one of a long line of witnesses testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday in support of a House-passed bill to raise the minimum wage in New Hampshire from the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.

If the bill, HB 186, becomes law, the minimum wage would rise to $9.50 in 2020; $10.75 in 2021; and $12 in 2022. The minimum for teens younger than 17 would be $1 less in each case.

Tipped employees would be guaranteed a base rate of not less than 50 percent of the applicable minimum.

That bill passed the House, 210-145, in March, and now competes with a Senate-passed minimum wage bill, SB 10, that takes a slightly different approach. The Senate passed SB 10 in a 14-10 vote, also in March.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, links the minimum wage to the availability of paid sick days.

It would raise the minimum to $10 in 2020. As of Jan. 1, 2022, the minimum would rise to $12 an hour, except for employers who offer at least 10 paid sick days. They would only have to pay $11 an hour.

The Senate bill also differs with the House on how to treat tipped employees, setting the minimum hourly wage for employees who receive more than $30 a month in tips at $4.

One of the two bills is likely to reach the desk of Gov. Chris Sununu, who has said he believes minimum wage policies are a federal and not a state issue.

“Regardless of political party, we should all agree New Hampshire is better equipped to make economic decisions that impact our workers and businesses than politicians in Washington, D.C.,” says Soucy.

“Increasing the minimum wage is a critical step forward we can take to support our working families and continue growing our economy.”

The N.H. Federation of Independent Businesses, the association of convenience store owners and the Business and Industry Association oppose both bills.

Lobbyist Henry Veilleux, representing the N.H. Lodging and Restaurant Association, testified on Thursday in opposition to the House bill, stating a preference instead for the Senate bill.

“It provides an innovative approach to the tip wage and we are very supportive of that,” he said.

The House Labor Committee is expected to schedule its hearing on the Senate-passed bill next week.

The bills have passed largely along party lines in both chambers, and would not likely have the votes to override an anticipated gubernatorial veto.