By Jan Murphy
Published May 8, 2014
It’s been five years since the last time Pennsylvania raised the minimum wage and a coalition of labor, faith and community leaders say it’s time the 1 million Pennsylvanians earning that low wage get a bump in pay.
Standing in the Capitol Rotunda, members of the Raise the Wage PA Coalition called on state lawmakers to pass legislation, sponsored by Rep. Patty Kim, D-Harrisburg, that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
“We are pushing hard for people who work 40 hours a week but still need state assistance,” Kim said. “Let’s encourage self reliance and financial independence. Increasing the minimum wage will do that and save the state money in public welfare services.”
Bishop A.E. Sullivan, president of the Interdenominational Ministers Conference of Greater Harrisburg, said Pennsylvania workers are falling behind other states. Twenty-one states have increased their minimum wage above the federal government’s wage floor of $7.25 an hour.
“A job should keep you out of poverty. Not keep you in poverty,” Sullivan said.
The news conference at the Capitol drew an audience of mostly media members and a handful of other spectators. Similar events supporting increasing the wage floor were held in eight other places around the state and a large rally is planned for the Capitol on June 3. A fast-food worker strike in places around the country and even overseas is planned for May 15 to call attention to their low wages.
Opponents see the issue gaining no traction in the General Assembly this year. However, a Senate GOP leadership source suggested if it gets any consideration at all in the Republican-controlled Senate, it would likely be for something less than the $10.10 an hour.
House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin, meanwhile, offered a litany of reasons why Kim's legislation stands little chance of going anywhere in that GOP-controlled chamber.
Among them, Miskin said the vast majority of people earning minimum wage are living with others, dependent on others or being trained. Further, he said this proposed 40 percent increase in employers' costs would likely be passed on to consumers.
Gov. Tom Corbett also is not inclined to support increasing the minimum wage, said his spokesman Jay Pagni.
"The issue presents some challenges to both employers and the Legislature," Pagni said. "It's important we balance the opportunity for workers to earn an appropriate living with the demands it would place on the companies that employ them."
At the news conference, Kim cited an Economic Policy Institute study that said the average minimum-wage worker in this country is 35 years old. She said when she goes into McDonald's or Walmart, the people working there tend to be middle-age women, mothers and grandmothers.
"We need to give them a strong voice," she said.
The calls for raising the minimum wage are meeting with resistance from a variety of corners outside the Capitol, including the business community and non-profits.
Business groups say it will hinder their ability to create jobs and cause job loss. They point to a Congressional Budget Office report issued in February that a $10.10 an hour minimum wage increase would put 500,000 jobs at risk.
Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, says it’s only common sense to think that if someone is out of work with a $7.25 a hour minimum wage, how could they be helped by raising the minimum hourly wage rose to $10.10.
“The reality is it hurts so many of the people it’s intended to help. If you pass this and a number of people lose their jobs, what good does that do?” Barr said.
Mark Price, a labor economist for the liberal-leaning Keystone Research Center, said other research over the past 20 years proves that way of thinking to be flat wrong.
“Raising the minimum wage puts money in people’s pockets which they then turn around and spend in the local economy,” he said.
Kathy Anderson-Martin, director of philanthropy for the Salvation Army Harrisburg Capital City Region, meanwhile, sees two sides to this issue. On one hand, raising the minimum wage would help the people her organization serves. On the other, it would raise its personnel costs, which in turn would reduce the number of people it can serve.
“It’s a touchy situation, but certainly the overall cost of staffing for us, not just wages, but benefits, we don’t see any end in sight and that worries us,” Anderson-Martin said. “There’s not a lot of fat in the Salvation Army budget.”
Danette Blank, executive director of Vision Resources of Central Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that provides support services to people who are blind or visually impaired, said beyond the impact it would have on her organization, the impact on the disabled individuals her organizations employ would be devastating.
“I’m concerned if it goes up to $10.10 that that will disqualify them for a lot of housing and other assistance they receive,” Blank said. “I’m not sure people realize they would get unqualified for that.”
Looking at the flip side, The Rev. Sandra Strauss, director of public advocacy for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, said a higher minimum wage would mean fewer people needing the social safety net that nonprofits provide.
“I know that a lot of church organizations would say we do this work but we would just as soon not be in the business of having to do this work. We’d rather see people earning a living wage. So I would hope a lot of non-profits can see it that way.”
*This post has been updated to include Gov. Tom Corbett's stance on the issue and a comment from his spokesman Jay Pagni.