Published: June 3, 2014
By SEAN SIMMERS
The sign told the story: "Working Full Time! Living in Poverty!"
Chanting activists in matching shirts brought their signs to the Capitol on Tuesday to set the tone for union leader Kathy Jellison.
"We've got Pennsylvanians who work 40 hours a week [who] are eligible for public assistance," Jellison said. "We've got working families choosing between paying the light bill or buying groceries."
Jellison, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 668, and other union organizers joined Democratic lawmakers and leaders of religious groups to ask state officials to raise Pennsylvania's minimum wage from its current $7.25 — the same as the federal minimum — to $10.10 an hour.
Their calls came amid a nationwide effort by Democrats and labor activists, who have made the issue a priority this year. However, in Pennsylvania, the Republican dominance of the legislature makes it unlikely the activists will see an across-the-board increase in minimum wage this year.
Seven states and the District of Columbia have increased their minimum wage so far this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, bringing the total number of states with wages above the federal minimum to 22.
President Barack Obama advocated for raising the minimum wage during his State of the Union in January before he signed an executive order setting $10.10 as the minimum wage contractors can pay federally-funded workers.
Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin, quipped that every time she has speaks about raising the minimum wage in Pennsylvania, another state has passed an increase to its minimum wage.
"There is a serious need out there," Kim said in an interview. "Low-wage workers are suffering."
Kim was responsible for one of the six bills Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced in the past year that would have raised the state minimum wage.
Republican Rep. Mario Scavello, chairman of the House Committee on Labor and Industry, said he wants to see an increase, but with qualifications.
"I don't think we should have the 14-, the 15-, the 16-year-olds in the same conversation," Scavello said.
He explained that raising the minimum wage for those workers, who often work entry-level jobs that give them experience, could discourage employers from hiring them.
The Living Wage Calculator, a project by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that compiles government data to calculate the cost of living, sets $10.60 as the poverty wage for an adult working to support a household with another adult and two children at $10.60 — the same as in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, equated a minimum wage increase with "reaching into the pocket of small-business owners."
Barr pointed to the high rates of unemployment in some inner cities.
"If they're not employed at $7.25 an hour, then can we really believe that if we move to $10.10 they're suddenly going to be employed? No," he said.
Barr added that raising the minimum wage could force employers to cut back and drive low-income workers out of their jobs.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated in a February report that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 could cause anywhere from a "slight decrease" in jobs to the loss one million.
Jellison said raising the minimum wage could create growth.
"We can't rebuild the economy when working- and middle-class families are getting crushed," Jellison said. "Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour will raise incomes for at least one million workers, boost the state's economy and build stronger communities."