Advocates Urge Minimum-Wage Increase in Pennsylvania
Daily Times – May 8th, 2014
by John Kopp
Onetha McKnight spends her days working as a wheelchair attendant at Philadelphia International Airport, a job that pays her $5.75 per hour, plus tips.
Her hourly wage falls below the $7.25 minimum rate because McKnight serves as a tipped employee. Those tips are not always plentiful.
“A lot of times, I get a thank you,” McKnight said. “I can’t take that to the store.”
McKnight detailed her struggles as a low-income worker Thursday during a state Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing held at Cabrini College. The panel discussion, hosted by state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-17, of Upper Merion, occurred as activists across Pennsylvania rallied in favor of increasing the state’s minimum wage.
The issue has been heavily trumpeted by Democrats since President Barack Obama urged Congress to raise the federal minimum wage rate to $10.10 during his State of the Union address in January. The U.S. Senate attempted to do that last week, but failed to gain the necessary support.
Leach has co-sponsored Pennsylvania legislation that would increase the state minimum wage rate to $12 per hour and require annual increases adjusting for inflation. Senate Bill 1317 also would eliminate the state’s $2.83 tipped minimum wage rate.
“We’d love to see it move in June,” Leach said. “There’s people who could really use the help right now.”
Twenty-one states have minimum wage rates higher than the federal level. Pennsylvania is not one of them. Washington, at $9.32 per hour, has the highest. Oregon is the only other state with a minimum wage of at least $9 per hour.
Erik Arneson, spokesman for state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-9, of Chester, said Republican leadership in the Senate is undecided on increasing the minimum wage.
“This is a national discussion that members of our caucus are following closely,” Arneson wrote in an email. “At this point, we don’t have any specific plans one way or the other.”
If Republican leadership makes raising the minimum wage a priority, Leach said he is open to negotiating a lesser increase.
“I’m happy to talk to them about everything,” Leach said. “I think a component of it has to be the tipped minimum wage. People can’t be making under $3 an hour. That’s an embarrassment.”
The panel discussion included people on both sides of the issue. Supporters said increasing the minimum wage will spark a flat economy and lift families above the self-sufficiency level. Opponents said it will bring widespread job loss and reduced hours to the exact population it aims to assist.
“Past increases on minimum wage have not had an effect on poverty,” said Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute. “I don’t think the evidence supports what the proponents of the bill say it will do.”
Saltsman lobbied instead for improving the earned income tax credit, a tax benefit designed to assist low- and moderate-income workers.
Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale said raising the minimum wage is necessary to provide economic security for low-income workers. He said the economy is flat because workers don’t have enough money to spend.
“Every time they’ve brought up that it would kill the American economy, it never happens,” Bloomingdale said. “People who pay the minimum wage pay that because they don’t have any respect for their workers. … If they could pay 50 cents, they would.”
Alex Halper, the government affairs director for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, refuted that claim as “unfair and untrue.” He noted that the federal minimum wage initially was aimed at ensuring a living wage for breadwinners.
Many minimum wage workers today are high school and college students preparing for their futures, he said. When Pennsylvania last raised its minimum wage in 2007, Halper said, 1,000 Philadelphia youth lost their jobs.
“You can’t ignore the impact on jobs,” Halper said. “You can’t ignore the impact on youth unemployment. … There are better, more targeted policies to address those issues that are not raising the minimum wage.”
Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said 88 percent of workers affected by a federal minimum wage increase are older than age 21. Another 53 percent are full-time workers.
“This is not charity — this is the economy,” Ward said. “People who are working are contributing to the productivity of their companies. … Businesses adjust. They do. They’ve adjusted in a variety of ways.
As the panelists debated Thursday, activists across Pennsylvania rallied in support of increasing the minimum wage. A group of about 40 individuals organized by the Service Employees International Union Local 668 rallied outside of the Media Courthouse.
“We need more money,” said Latrice Williams, an Elwyn employee. “We need help and we’re not getting either. They expect us to work short and we’re not getting the money that we need.”
The Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank, responded to the rallies by arguing that the minimum wage puts people out of work.
“Whatever level you want to set the minimum wage, it’s not the best way to help the poor,” Senior Policy Analyst Elizabeth Stelle said in a phone interview. “It’s not the best way to lift people out of poverty.”
Leach dismissed arguments that a minimum wage increase will eliminate jobs and instead harm the poor.
“There are not a lot of employers with tons of extra employees they don’t need out of the goodness of their heart,” Leach said. “They hire who they need to work their business. Frankly, if … you want to come to Pennsylvania and the only way you can survive is by paying our workers starvation wages, I don’t want your jobs in Pennsylvania.
“Take them to Texas. We want good jobs that allow people to actually support their families.”
Leach is running for the U.S. House of Representatives. He is among four Democrats vying to fill the open seat in the 13th Congressional District. Democrats Brendan F. Boyle, of Philadelphia, Marjorie Margolies, of Plymouth, and Val Arkoosh, of Springfield, Montgomery County, are also seeking the Democratic nomination.