Del. farmers regrouping efforts to fight minimum wage bill

Associate Editor

DOVER, Del. (Feb. 2, 2016) — State agriculture advocates will have to reload before taking aim again at a bill that could boost the state’s minimum wage to $10.25 by 2020 after the Senate narrowly approved the measure last week.
The Senate passed the bill Jan. 27 essentially along party lines with 11 Democrats voting yes and nine Republicans voting no after a group of small business owners, many of them farmers, testified before the legislature, saying they fear the wage increase will force them to eliminate jobs and cut what they produce. 
“It has the potential to put us out of business,” said Curt Fifer, owner of Fifer Orchards in Camden-Wyoming, in an interview with The Delmarva Farmer. “It’s smoke and mirrors. If you raise the minimum wage, (business owners are) going to have to raise the price of their goods and services. The minimum wage employee is going to have less in their pocket.”
Fifer was one of several farmers who testified before the legislature.
Supporters of the bill have said it’s critical to bolstering the state’s economy by boosting impoverished families and consumer spending. Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington West, the bill’s sponsor, could not be reached for comment.
However, farmers likely had a positive impact on what the Senate ultimately passed, said Pam Bakerian, executive director of the state Farm Bureau.
The bill went through several iterations, including an initial version that increased the minimum wage to $15.
Another version had dropped the wage increase to $10.25 but also included a cost-of-living increase schedule that would have matched Social Security’s.
The final bill passed bumps the minimum wage up by 50 cents a year until it hits $10.25 in 2020.
The cost-of-living increase, however, was erased.
The changes occurred over several days’ worth of visits by farmers to Senate chambers to protest the bill.
Farmers “did change the outcome,” Bakerian said. “There’s nothing like a farmer to tell their own story on how it would personally affect their own operation.”
Fifer, for instance, said the bill could lead him to cut 150 jobs, Bakerian said. Steve McCarron of Kenny Bros. Produce in Bridgeville forecasted a loss of 250 jobs at his business, she said.
The Farm Bureau is preparing for the bill to be sent to the House, where she expects to bring more farmers before lawmakers.
She also wants to engage consumers on the issue.
“It’s really going to have an impact on the availability of fresh food fresh from the farm,” she said. “Consumers wants fresh and local. This bill is going to to have an impact on fresh and local.”
If the bill adversely affects Delaware agriculture, it has the potential to harm the state’s fragile economy, recently weakened by DuPont’s announcement that it has started the elimination of 1,700 jobs across the state, said Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Laurel, and a business owner.
“Our economy’s not in that good of shape,” he said. “Our agriculture is kind of carrying the burden right now. If we lose our agriculture, there’s not much left to hold up our economy. We’ve got to make sure the decisions we make help our farmers and not hurt our farmers.”
Government should also lean toward staying out of the marketplace on wage issues, he said.
The bill’s supporters “talked about the morality of this, paying people a fair wage,” he said. “We care about the people who work for us. … It’s dictated by the market. When (the government) tries to pick winners and losers, I think it has an adverse effect on the marketplace.”
The House will be unable to consider the bill until the legislature reconvenes from its current five-week recess on March 8.