On Monday, a House panel approved the sweeping changes, which backers say would make work pay off for Minnesotans struggling with poverty. The bill could be headed for a vote by the full House as early as this week.

But even among the Democrats who control the Legislature, there is some turmoil on how far to take the worker-friendly changes. DFLers in the House and Senate have yet to agree on how much to raise the minimum wage and whether to require overtime pay after 40 hours.

At $6.15 an hour, Minnesota’s minimum wage is one of the nation’s lowest. Since it lags below the federal standard, most — but not all — workers in the state receive the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, although some small businesses in the state can pay as little as $5.25 per hour.

Gov. Mark Dayton, as well as most Democrats in the Legislature and some Republicans, believe it is time for the state to raise the wage standard.

“We want people who are working full-time to make enough money that they can support their families ... and achieve the American dream,” the governor said in a Star Tribune interview. “We’re below the nation. That, to me, is just indefensible.”

Amount in doubt

The measure approved in the House committee Monday would slowly raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2015. Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, originally proposed $10.55. A Senate measure would raise the minimum wage to $7.75 by 2015.

“Something is going to happen on the minimum wage, I just don’t know what the number is,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said last week. He said that he, House Speaker Paul Thissen and Dayton will meet to arrive at a single figure.

About 93,000 Minnesotans now earn wages at or below the federal minimum. If the wage floor rose to $9.50 an hour, between 350,000 and 400,000 Minnesotans could see a pay increase, Winkler said.

“A raise in the minimum wage would be a substantial and significant increase in the purchasing power and ability of people who work to support themselves and their families,” Winkler said.

But the nursing home industry has joined a number of other business groups in protesting the proposed increases.

“An increase in the minimum wage will amount to an unfunded mandate for long-term-care providers,” Kari Thurlow, vice president of advocacy at Aging Services of Minnesota and Toby Pearson, vice president of advocacy at Care Providers of Minnesota, wrote to lawmakers.

Changing family leave

Legislators and the governor’s administration say they also want to bring the state law up to federal standards on family leave and the length of the workweek for nearly all employers.

Because of exemptions for small businesses, about 8,500 businesses in Minnesota are allowed to grant only six weeks of family leave rather than the 12 weeks allowed by federal law, affecting between 178,000 and 425,000 workers.

Overtime also varies. Between 80,000 and 115,000 Minnesota employees get overtime only after working 48 hours, because their employers are exempted from the federal law that mandates overtime after 40 hours.

The move to require overtime after 40 hours instead of 48 was particularly controversial on Monday, since it would take in home health care workers and agricultural workers whose employers are now exempted.

“The ag workers are not like factory workers, where they can go in and they can clock in and they can clock out,” said Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin.

She, along with several Republicans, said agricultural work is so dependent on the weather that workers must sometimes work long hours to get the job done.

After many Republicans joined Poppe in speaking out against the changes, an impassioned Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, lashed out at fellow committee members.

“Where the hell are the workers in this particular argument?” Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, asked before the measure passed. “There used to be a compact: eight hours of work, eight hours of rest and eight hours of family. … It is time America, and Minnesota, and this world, get back to that particular attitude.”