Delaware has struggled to move to a $15 an hour minimum wage. Why supporters have new hope

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

Delaware lawmakers introduced a bill late Tuesday to gradually raise the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour, heeding the growing call for the pay increase that neighboring states have already implemented.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has only bolstered opposition from Delaware's business-friendly community, which has prevailed in stopping such an increase in the past.

Democrats have tried and failed for several years to move the state toward a $15 minimum wage. And like last session's unsuccessful bill, this bill filed on Tuesday would gradually raise the minimum wage from its current rate of $9.25 to $15 by 2025.

Advocates said much has changed since last year, and not just because of the virus.

Delaware is more likely this time around to succeed in hiking the minimum wage because voters replaced several moderate Democratic and Republican lawmakers with progressives in the November election. Democrats now hold a three-fifths majority in both chambers.

And even Gov. John Carney appears perhaps more open to it than in years past.

Still, that might not be enough to pass it, especially because the pro-business state is still feeling the pandemic's toll on the local economy.

The food industry, which has been hit particularly hard by Gov. John Carney's yearlong COVID-19 restrictions, may put up the hardest fight.

"It’s puzzling to me when we have an economy that’s not even open at 100%, why they are pursuing a bill like this," said Carrie Leishman, CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association.

"It's irresponsible."

The latest on Delaware's minimum wage fight

Union members rallied in January 2020 on the steps of the Capitol for a $15 an hour minimum wage in Delaware.

Powerful business groups will again fight the measure, and they have proven effective: They recently succeeded in lobbying against a $15 an hour wage in Congress.

And that's in part due to the stance in Delaware.

Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, both Delaware Democrats, rejected a proposal Friday to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, showing how divisive the issue is in the state.

When defending their vote, they cited concerns from the business community.

The duo voted down an amendment that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders attempted to tack on to President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. It would have gradually raised the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 by 2025.

Coons and Carper were two of eight non-Republicans to vote against it.

Both support a $15 minimum wage but voted "no" because they did not want to imminently burden businesses that have suffered losses during the pandemic, according to statements from the senators and their staff.

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A debate in the state Legislature

Sen. Jack Walsh, D-Stanton, (left) is expected to sponsor a bill in 2021 to raise Delaware's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025.

Advocates for the bill say that the minimum wage increase is long overdue, and the pandemic has only highlighted how many essential workers who have risked their health this past year to keep the economy going are not paid enough to afford basic expenses.

The increase, they say, is a matter of human dignity.

"The corporations and special interest who claim $15 an hour is too much and will hurt businesses are hoping you don't look at our neighboring states," said Sen. Jack Walsh, D-Stanton, who is sponsoring this year's bill. 

During a press conference Monday, he cited how Maryland, New Jersey and New York are all gradually raising their minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Walsh said his bill won't increase the minimum wage in 2021 and gives business owners time to plan for the increase.

But Leishman argues that restaurants, which have been able to receive state and federal financial aid during the pandemic, are still so devastated that they would need more time.

"It was a platform that many of these progressives ran on, but they didn’t take into account the devastation of COVID on restaurants," she said. "There are a lot of elected officials who don’t want to touch it. And those are Democrats and Republicans."

— Carrie Leishman is president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association

Rep. Eric Morrison, D-Glasgow, is one of those progressives who ran on a $15 minimum wage.

He said that, while businesses have suffered during the pandemic, workers have suffered "immensely."

"There will always and always are reasons being given as to why we still can't raise the minimum wage and do the right thing for workers," Morrison said. "We cannot afford to keep putting this off. ... We should have done this a long time ago."

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How the minimum wage would change

A Tuesday evening press release on the bill cited research from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington, D.C., group, which found the average two-bedroom apartment in Delaware now costs $1,142 a month.

That would leave minimum-wage earners with less than $84 a week for basic necessities such as groceries, medicine and car insurance, the group said.

Walsh's Senate Bill 15 would gradually increase the minimum wage by more than $1 each year:

  • $10.50 by 2022
  • $11.75 by 2023
  • $13.25 by 2024
  • $15 by 2025

Lawmakers are in session until June 30 before they go on a six-month hiatus. They plan on holding a committee hearing on the bill March 17.

It's not clear if Carney, who in previous years has supported lesser increases to the minimum wage, would sign the bill if it passed.

But in a statement Tuesday, he thanked the bill sponsors for "their thoughtful work on this legislation" and cited how he is committed to raising state government worker wages to $15 an hour.

When pressed on whether Carney would sign the bill, a spokesman said Tuesday that the governor's office won't speculate because the bill hasn't passed yet.

Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.