NEW BRITAIN — President Barack Obama made a rousing, campaign-style appeal for a higher minimum wage Wednesday afternoon at a sold-out pep rally at Central Connecticut State University, saying it was “time to give America a raise.”
Appealing to students, women, senior citizens and working class Americans, Obama asked the crowd to pressure Republicans in Congress to support his plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. The minimum wage in Connecticut is currently $8.70. Nationally, about 5 percent of workers earn the minimum wage.
“Making work pay means wages and paychecks that let you support a family,” Obama said in a speech that lasted about an hour. “Nobody who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.”
“There will always be airport workers, there will always be fast food workers … people who work their tails off every day. People who work in nursing homes looking after your grandparents,” Obama said. “If we are going to finish the job Congress has to get on board.”
“What happens if workers got a little money in their pockets? They spend a little more money. Suddenly businesses have more customers, which mean they have more profits,” he said, to loud applause from an audience dominated by students. “It’s common sense.”
Joining the president at the rally were Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Reps. Jim Himes,Rosa DeLauro, Joe Courtney, Elizabeth Esty and John Larson. When he arrived at Bradley, Obama was greeted by Gov. Malloy, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. The entire group travelled to the rally in the president’s limo.
Before Obama spoke, hundreds of students and a handful of protest groups gathered on Central’s campus in New Britain. Among the few protest groups were environmentalists opposing the proposed Keystone Pipeline from Canada to Texas and others carrying signs that read “I want jobs, not handouts.”
Kevin Pilz, a junior said he had a ticket and had been waiting in line since 8:30 am. “How often do you get to see the president” he said. “Even if you don’t agree with everything he says, he’s still the president.”
For Meg Phiefer, a junior, the president’s visit carried personal meaning. “I grew up with a single mom who struggled on min wage so I’m hoping to maybe get some almost justice for that.”
Phiefer had been standing outside for over two hours. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience” she said. She said she hoped the president also would talk about international policy, especially the situation in Ukraine.
Nick Maturo, a custodian at CCSU, said his daughter works at Dunkin Donuts and makes minimum wage.
“I’m here for my daughter…to try to get her more money,” he said. “She’s 25, she can’t get another job, she’s trying her hardest – I’m here for her.”
Andrea Kolinsky, a Newington resident, she’s a student at UConn. Both sets if her grandparents came from Ukraine. She said her message to Obama was “support the Ukrainian people”
She wishes Obama had acted sooner “but I understand he’s doing what he feels is right for America'”
Before heading to the rally at Central, President Obama made a stop at a barber shop on Main Street in downtown New Brittain and then ate lunch with the Malloy and the other New England governors Café Beauregard. The stopover attracted throngs of surprised onlookers, including one man who jumped out of barber’s chair to snap a picture of the president.
The White House reported that café owners Rob Chiovoloni and Alice Bruno, a husband and wife team, pay all employees at least $10 per hour.
Gervais Barger of Plainville was seated in a chair at the Courtside Cuts Barber Shop on Main Street when he heard a commotion outside at lunchtime.
“They started seeing the motorcade, and we came outside,” Barger said as he stood outside – still wearing a smock and without a coat on a cold day.
He said he had never seen a president before – “not in person.”
Meanwhile, a Quinnipiac Poll released Tuesday found strong support for raising the minimum wage and Gov. Malloy has made the idea a key initiative during this gubernatorial election year.
The Q Poll released Tuesday showed a sharp divide among various groups on the minimum wage, which Democrats have been pushing as a major issue in this fall’s elections. While 93 percent of Democrats polled in Connecticut support hiking the rate, with 6 percent opposed, a majority of Republicans — 53 percent — oppose an increase, with 41 percent in favor.
Women strongly favored the hike, 78 percent to 18 percent, and the highest support came from both men and women in the 18-to-29 age bracket.
But the Q-Poll also found that even in blue state Connecticut, Obama’s ratings are his lowest of his presidency.
With the president more than a year into his second term, the poll found that 51 percent of voters in Connecticut disapprove of the way he is doing his job. That’s a new high for disapproval of Obama, whose all-time high approval rating in the state reached 71 percent favorability in April and May 2009.
There is a significant gender gap in Obama’s approval ratings as 57 percent of men disapprove of his performance. Women are more evenly divided, with 49 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving, according to the poll.
At the state capitol Wednesday, one business owner attending an event sponsored by theConnecticut Business and Industry Association said they this increase to the state’s minimum wage won’t affect the state.
Dave Labrie, owner of the Inn at Harbor Hill Marina in Niantic, said none of his year-round employees make less than $10.10 an hour, and even the college kids who mow the lawn in the summer make $10 an hour.
He said there’s a lot of competition in hotels on the shoreline, and to get the best cleaning staff and breakfast servers, you have to pay about $12 an hour. “It’s the going rate,” he said.
He said he thinks an increase in the minimum wage “is going to have very minimal impact” on the state’s economy.
“I agree with the concept if you’re working a 40-hour a week job, and you can’t break free from that (minimum wage), that’s very hard to live on.”
Rachel Deane, owner of two McDonald’s franchises in Cheshire and Mansfield, saoid she was strongly opposed to the bill. She employees 140 people between the two restaurants, and most make less than $10 an hour. The average wage last week, she said, was $9.85, including management staff who are paid $14 an hour. About half of her after 3 p.m. workforce is high school students, she said.
Hiring and retaining workers is a huge hurdle for Deane, who said her 90-day turnover is 120 percent. But she said she doesn’t believe if she paid $11 an hour that she’d get a better pool of applicants.
“I don’t think there’s any relationship between pay and reliability,” she said.
She will be raising food prices later this year to compensate for the increase in the minimum wage in January, but she said she doesn’t have control over every price, and for the last three years, she’s had declining sales in both restaurants.
Republicans sought to link Obama’s low approval ratings, the still stuggling economy and Gov. Malloy.
“Today President Obama visits Connecticut with his lowest approval rating ever and it’s not hard to see why,” said Jerry Labriola, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party.
“Over the past few years, Connecticut voters have come to associate Democrats with higher taxes, government spending, and fewer jobs – and rightfully so. Since first taking office in 2011, Dan Malloy has passed the largest tax increase in state history, increased spending by nearly $3,000,000,000 and allowed our economy to become the worst in the nation,” Labriola said in a statement released to the media Wednesday morning.
“President Obama, Governor Malloy and the Democrats in the legislature have failed Connecticut. They have failed to grow jobs, they’ve failed to grow our economy, and they have failed to keep their promises.
“Far too many families in Connecticut are living paycheck-to-paycheck in the Dan Malloy no-growth economy. We all agree that more must be done to help those who struggle to make ends meet, but as long as the cost of doing business in Connecticut remains among the highest in the nation, good-paying jobs will continue to flee our state.”