Since mandated minimum wage increases were passed by referendum in 2016, I have heard so much distress here in rural Maine from the already struggling business sector, which has yet to fully recover from the great recession.

Prior to returning to the legislature in January I passionately agreed to sponsor a bill that would begin to address Maine’s current law that in many cases is causing many low-skilled workers to earn smaller weekly paychecks.

Jan. 24 was the public hearing for L.D. 1757, which would slow the increase in minimum wage to allow Maine businesses to catch their breath from the $2.50-per-hour rise in just two years. Dozens of small-business owners, many from rural areas, came to the State House to have their voices heard on the true impacts of the rapid increase. They reminded us about the first rule of business: cash in must exceed cash out.

One by one they stood in front of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee and told us how they’ve been forced to reduce hours, lay off workers and even close their doors due to the increase in labor costs mandated by the referendum.

L.D. 1757 also creates a student and training wage that would reopen many opportunities for teenagers who have been priced out of the job market by the $10-per-hour minimum. We all know how vital that first part-time job is while in high school to start developing a work ethic. Without the alternative of a student wage, many employers have simply stopped hiring these young people.

Cynthia Plummer from Plummer’s Shop n Save in Buxton described to the committee the need for a student wage in Maine: “The new minimum wage requirements have put a great strain on our payroll budget. Having to pay the younger student employees such a high wage literally takes the ability to pay our adult employees what they really need and deserve. There is only so much we can allocate in the budget for payroll and still keep our business profitable.”

Contrary to what some may believe, the people who own these small rural businesses are not millionaires hording profits. They’re people like Chip Towle, who owns two small businesses, a hardware store and a corner store in Dixfield. He laid it out to the Labor Committee members exactly how these rapid increases are affecting his businesses and specifically his employees.

Once the minimum wage increase went into effect, wholesalers immediately increased the cost of goods. That, coupled with his own increased labor costs, forced Mr. Towle to cut the hours for his workers in the convenience store to compensate for the increases. He has also been forced to reduce the hours his stores are open. The referendum that passed at the ballot box essentially put the minimum wage on automatic pilot, so it continues to increase regardless of the toll those increases take on these small businesses.

“We will continue to trim and adapt as best we can until the state of Maine essentially forces costs higher than it is worth to stay in business,” Towle told the committee.

Even colleges in Maine are struggling to keep up with the minimum wage increases. The number of work-study students has declined since the passage of the minimum wage law. Work-study is essentially a form of federal and campus supported financial aid. Seventy-five percent of the funding comes from the federal government with the universities picking up the remainder. While the minimum wage continues to increase in Maine the federal allocation does not, thus putting the financial burden on the universities themselves. They must either reduce the number of hours students work or reduce the number of students who receive this financial aid.

I believe the will of the voters in 2016 was to increase the size of low-income workers paychecks, not just their hourly wage. I have been serving in the Legislature long enough to know that there are unintended consequences with a lot of bills, even those with the best of intentions.

At the hearing in the Labor Committee we heard a familiar mantra during the 10 hours of testimony and I hope everyone serving in the Maine Legislature understands the havoc the new minimum wage law is wreaking on our small business community, colleges and workers’ paychecks. We need to listen to our small business owners and pass a bill that allows them to compete and thrive. When our local businesses succeed, we all win.

Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, serves on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.