State employees union, activists call on NH lawmakers to more than double mimimum wage

Genara Clay of Deering was among low-wage workers who spoke at a rally in front of the State House on Monday to call on government to increase the minimum businesses must pay workers.

CONCORD -- New Hampshire residents trying to get by on low-wage jobs made their case for a higher minimum wage Monday in front of the State House as part of a campaign they’re calling “Raise Up New Hampshire.”

A small protest organized by the American Friends Service Committee, United Valley Interfaith Project and other like-minded organizations carried signs and applauded speakers, including individuals who say they struggle to make ends meet while working two or more jobs.

The Rev. John Gregory-Davis of Meriden, among those arrested for refusing to leave Executive Council chambers during a peaceful protest in June, introduced speakers ranging from Rich Gulla, president of the State Employees Assoc., to Genara Clay of Deering, a Concord-based massage therapists who also worked at Market Basket.

“For me, working three jobs in order to survive is not an abstraction, it’s my reality,” she said. “One of these jobs I held for 21 years was at Market Basket, and my experiences there epitomize why the Raise up New Hampshire campaign is so urgently needed.”

Clay said the fifth day of each month, known as Food Stamp Day at the grocery store, “brought the most horror.”

“Behind closed doors, company executives making $60,000 or more would mock the poor for using food stamps but no one mocks the poor more than the rank-and-file employees who were barely above the poverty line themselves,” she said.

“Every week I’d hear the same things. If food stamps bought good food I’d hear, ‘People on food stamps shouldn’t be buying lobster and steak on my dime. I couldn’t even afford that.’ If food stamps bought junk food, it was, ‘Look at the garbage welfare people buy. That shouldn’t be allowed.’”

Clay said those experiences motivated her to join the movement, formerly known as the “Fight for $15.”

“Not only do we in the working class turn our backs on each other, but we vilify the poor even though we are just one bad day from joining their ranks,” she said. “I was outraged and still am outraged and decided to become engaged on these issues.”

A bill in the New Hampshire Senate to slowly raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 failed in a party line vote, 14-10, in February – the latest in a long line of unsuccessful bills with the same objective.

Opponents argue raising the minimum wage would mean lost jobs and more part-time jobs, and that very few people are actually working for the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour in New Hampshire. The state repealed its minimum wage law in 2011 and became one of 21 states that defaults to the federal minimum.

In New Hampshire, most low-wage workers are in the service sector, according to Raise Up New Hampshire.

Low unemployment has increased wages, but starting pay is still low for jobs like retail sales, fast food, housekeeping and child care, which on average pay in the range of $8.58 to $8.72 an hour, said Sarah Jane Knoy with the Granite State Oragnizing Project.

“Raising the wage to $15 is a start but it barely scratches the surface,” she said. “Depending on your family size and what region of the state you live in, the true cost of living in New Hampshire ranges from $19 to $29 an hour.”

Organizers of the protest point out that New Hampshire is surrounded by states with a higher minimum wage, including Maine at $10, Massachusetts at $11 and Vermont at $10.50.

The main point of the event was to encourage participants to become politically active as the November election approaches, signing petitions, talking to candidates and writing letters to the editor.

“I urge you to vote this November for candidates who represent your interests,” said Gulla. “Make your voices heard, because if there is anything I hope we’ve learned it’s that elections matter.”