By Jan Murphy, PennLive | PA Post
Discussions surrounding an increase in Pennsylvania’s $7.25 hourly minimum wage have been heating up again as the Legislature prepares to head back to Harrisburg this week.
A proposal generating a lot of talk would raise it to $9.25 or $9.50 an hour using a phased-in approach over the next 18 months to two years.
That is less than Gov. Tom Wolf proposed in his budget address earlier this year. He wanted to move it to $12 an hour this past July and ratchet it up to $15 an hour by 2025. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said at the time he was open to discussing an increase but said Wolf’s proposal was “not anywhere near reasonable.”
As the months rolled on, some other Republican lawmakers began signaling an interest in taking a look at having Pennsylvania join the 29 other states, plus the District of Columbia, to have a higher minimum wage than the $7.25 federal minimum. But that effort got derailed at the eleventh hour when a compromise didn’t emerge before lawmakers recessed at the end of June.
Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers, notably in the House, remained reluctant to move on it. They prefer to leave the state’s minimum wage where it has sat since 2009. Some House Republicans have been concerned about a higher minimum wage leading to businesses eliminating jobs for entry-level workers. House Republicans have preference have focused on training workers for higher paying jobs.
Still, top aides to majority Republican leaders in both the Senate and House last week confirmed there is a willingness to consider raising the minimum wage, a top priority for Wolf since taking office in 2015.
“We are exploring this issue as we have said we would over the last many months and we’re seeing if there is an ability to reach a reasonable compromise,” said Drew Crompton, chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County.
“We have always engaged in discussions,” said House Republican spokesman Mike Straub, “and our priority remains finding pathways for Pennsylvanians to earn far beyond the minimum.”
Wolf, himself, said discussions are continuing but nothing has been decided. “We’re still in discussion,” he said following an unrelated news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday.
But if $9.50 is where an emerging proposal tops out, Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin County, said she can’t help but consider it “a little bit of a kick in the gut. We wanted something closer to $12 an hour but I’m just going to have to look at it.”
Just as disappointing, Kim, who has been championing this issue since 2013, said it doesn’t sound like there is any consideration to including a provision to allow the minimum to automatically rise by the annual rate of inflation. Without such a provision, lawmakers could end up revisiting the issue again in 10 to 15 years.
The $9.50 may be enough to satisfy some minimum wage proponents who see it as better than nothing. But Kim said, “When I talk to the workers who are out there working minimum wage jobs they are the ones who it’s going to be difficult to go back to if it does pass at $9.50. To them it’s going to look like [lawmakers] got to check off a box that they raised the minimum wage. It’s going to do pretty much nothing for those who are making $9.50 an hour already. They are going to be the ones who I think are going to be most disappointed.”
Representatives from the business community may not be happy with it either. They remain generally opposed to any increase in the hourly wage, especially without some kind of concessions.
“There’s no 100 percent concrete deal done at this point but if people are willing to talk, we’re certainly willing to do it depending on what level minimum wage people are looking at and depending on what else people are willing to do to reduce labor costs in other areas,” said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
Gordon Denlinger, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business in Pennsylvania, said his organization’s members will be taking a hard line on the issue “due to cost impact on small business owners and the loss of jobs that will result for low-skilled workers.”
Meanwhile, Steve Herzenberg, executive director of the Harrisburg-based liberal-leaning Keystone Research Center, said a recent study by three analysts from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York debunks the job loss argument.
The study looked at wages and jobs in the hospitality and leisure industry in New York counties that sit along the Pennsylvania border. Those analysts found when New York raised its minimum wage above $10 an hour, it didn’t cause job losses in hotels and fast food restaurants. If anything, it increased employment relative to businesses over the state line in Pennsylvania, the study found.
Herzenberg surmises that employment boost could be coming from Pennsylvanians crossing the state line for better paying jobs in New York.
“The biggest clump of people left behind on wages and employment are actually in the rural center of Pennsylvania,” he said. “So all of those [Republican] lawmakers, if facts and the bread and butter concerns of their constituents matter at all to them, they should be the people championing an increase in the minimum wage.”
A March Franklin & Marshall College poll found nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said Pennsylvania’s minimum wage should be higher, with 47 percent strongly favoring it to be boosted to the $12 an hour Wolf proposed and 22 percent somewhat favorable to that high of a minimum wage.
The F&M poll asked if Pennsylvania’s minimum wage should rise from $7.25 per hour to $12 per hour. In response, 47 percent said they strongly favor it and another 22 percent said they “somewhat favor” the idea.
Across the nation, 29 states, including all of Pennsylvania’s neighboring states, have minimum wages higher than the Keystone State.
PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.
PA Post is a digital-first, citizen-focused news organization that connects Pennsylvanians with accountability and deep-dive reporting.