Teen Voices in the Fight to Raise the Minimum Wage in Massachusetts

Norma Meza is an 18-year-old student at Charlestown High School in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Growing up, she watched her mother battle health issues such as kidney failure, lupus, and ulcers. Despite working full-time, her mother struggled financially to keep the family afloat. Norma knew as early as 14 years old that she would have to get a job to help her mother pay the bills and put food on the table.

Since then she’s worked a number of jobs to help contribute to her family’s income while gaining important work skills. “I’ve worked as an office assistant and learned in the process how to answer phone calls, assisting families who spoke Spanish,” said Norma. “After that I worked as a camp counselor for 2 years where I learned leadership, communication skills, and how to be a role model.”

Knowing how valuable youth employment is to herself and her family, Norma joined I Have A Future, a statewide community of youth organizers and allies building power to win youth jobs and end mass incarceration through transformational leadership development, direct public action, and policy change.

With over 104,000 teens working and actively contributing to the Massachusetts economy, I Have A Future has joined the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition to lift up the voice of teenagers in their efforts to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts.

The US economy has experienced long-term real wage stagnation and a persistent lack of economic progress for many workers. A report released by The Hamilton Project found that after adjusting for inflation, wages in the US are only 10 percent higher in 2017 than they were in 1973, with annual real wage growth just below 0.2 percent.

Right now, a full-time worker in Massachusetts earning the current minimum wage of $11 an hour makes only $22,880 a year. A minimum wage earner in Massachusetts would have to work 94 hours every week in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Many workers earning the minimum wage work three or more jobs and still can’t afford the cost of groceries, medication, housing, heating and other basic needs.

The Raise Up MA coalition has joined the nation wide Fight for 15 movement. They proposed a plan to increase the state’s minimum wage by $1 each year over four years until it is $15 an hour in 2021. The minimum wage would then be adjusted each year to rise along with increases in the cost of living. Some state legislators and business groups have pushed back on the plan calling for a carve out for teens and for a sub-minimum “teen wage” or “training wage”.

Emphasizing teen wages in this fight is crucial because like Norma, many working teens in Massachusetts play an important role in not only helping their families meet their financial needs but also for themselves, like paying for college.

A study released by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center found that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022 would give 89 percent of working teens a raise. This increase would help tens of thousands of families achieve the financial stability that presently is out of reach.

Under federal law, employers are allowed to pay workers under 20 years old any rate above $4.25 an hour for the first 90 days of their employment. Members of the National Federation for Independent Businesses are arguing that paying teens a higher wage may be difficult for small businesses to absorb.

But the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center argues that a subminimum wage policy for teens could hurt the overall economy by replacing adults and seniors in the workforce. With large shares of working adults over 65 years old who work in many of the same occupations as teen workers — such as cashiers and retail salespeople — a teen wage could harm the employment prospects of older adults.

Also, Mass. Budget president Noah Berger emphasized in WBUR late last year that, “it’s important to recognize that in low-income families, the wages teens earn can be important,” Berger said, “and if they’re paid a little more it gives them greater capacity to help their family to make ends meet, to pay for food or rent or other basic necessities.”

Norma Meza was one of the few teens who shared her testimony at Raise Up Congress, a rally at the MA statehouse where advocates lobbied state lawmakers for Paid Family and Medical Leave and a $15 Minimum Wage.

“As you can tell youth employment is important for me and for other teens in similar situations,” Meza said. “Youth are the now and the future. If you believe in us, if you believe that all young people should have equal opportunities to thrive, then invest in our future!”