The following editorial appeared in the York Daily Record. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune-Democrat.
Scan the want ads and it might seem as though the free market has already settled Pennsylvania’s minimum wage debate.
Many employers, urban and rural, offer entry-level pay that exceeds the state’s paltry minimum wage – stuck at $7.25 since 2009. On a recent day, Sheetz was seeking team members at $14.50 an hour, Amazon, packer-sorters for $19.05.
But as the USA Today Network-Pennsylvania’s recent series Bare Minimum makes clear, such listings – however welcome and overdue – should not serve to paper over the pain of the more than 90,000 people in the state who still labor for minimum wage, the approximately 700,000 workers who make between $7.26 and $12 an hour, and still others who make less than $15 an hour.
Reporters reached beyond tired talking points and took readers into the anxious, precarious lives of low-wage earners most affected by Pennsylvania lawmakers’ failure to mandate a living wage.
Rhetoric often casts the minimum wage worker as young and temporary – a teenager working part-time scooping ice cream. In fact, as the series detailed, only 27% of workers earning minimum wage are 16 to 19 years old. Most low-wage earners are older than 20 and 30% are older than 25. And they are disproportionately female and individuals of color.
Black, Hispanic and other non-white residents make up only 22% of the state population but account for 32% of low-wage workers. And the vast majority – more than 77% – of those earning less than $12 an hour in Pennsylvania are women.
They are people such as Melanie Kifer. A mother of three, she worked full-time for $7.65 an hour – $306 a week – at a Johnstown McDonalds, but had to turn to public assistance and a soup kitchen to feed her family.
Rodney Gregory, in kidney failure, cleans airplanes in Philadelphia for a $13.60 an hour and delivers pizza on weekends to earn about $2,000 a month as his family’s sole breadwinner. He fears that if a long-awaited opportunity for a kidney transplant does arrive, he won’t be able to afford the time off for surgery.
Tina Moore navigated a teenage pregnancy, stayed in school and raised her child. She now works as a security guard for $14.65 an hour with no benefits or paid time off. Netting about $1,600 a month, she can’t afford a car or living room furniture or a home outside her tough Philadelphia neighborhood, which features, among other things, an open-air drug market. Rent alone is $700 a month.
Those who oppose raising Pennsylvania’s minimum wage say increasing it now would harm small businesses, especially restaurants hit hard by the pandemic, and potentially cost low-wage workers their jobs.
They point to a Congress- ional Budget Office study that found increasing the federal minimum wage – also set at $7.25 an hour – to $15 an hour would cost 1.4 million jobs.
But that same study also found raising the wage would increase income for 17 million people and lift 900,000 people from poverty. A raise here, Gov. Tom Wolf has said, would increase income for 1.1 million Pennsylvanians.
A recent poll showed nearly 70% of Pennsylvanians support increasing the minimum wage. We stand with them and our working poor neighbors profiled in the Bare Minimum series. There is, in our view, no sound argument, either practical or moral, for maintaining the scandalous wage structure that mires too many Pennsylvanians in poverty even though they work long hours at one or more jobs.
Businesses might have to spend more on payroll, but affected workers will also have more income to spend and, as Wolf has said, “grow the economy for everyone.”
Higher wages can aid employers by stabilizing the workforce. One study showed hiking wages of San Francisco Airport workers from $6.45 to $10 an hour slashed annual turnover from 95% to 19%.
States surrounding Pennsylvania already increased their minimum wages without the predicted job losses and harm.
New Jersey, Maryland and New York are on paths to $15 an hour. That puts our state, amid a historic labor crunch, at an increasing competitive disadvantage, especially in areas already battling brain drain due to lack of opportunity.
Also not to be glossed over is the burden low wages place on taxpayers, as underpaid workers often must turn to public assistance to close the gaps on the costs of their lives. Why should taxpayers subsidize companies that refuse to pay a living wage?
As columnist Mike Argento detailed, there has been a push to cast poverty as the product of individual moral failing.
The grit and resourcefulness of those profiled in Bare Minimum belie that pernicious myth, which also ignores the powerful political and economic forces that hamper opportunity. The list includes globalization and the weakening bargaining power of unions, not to mention the vagaries of life that can crush prospects with a surprise diagnosis or accident.
Those who apply their minds, bodies and precious hours on this earth to create value for others deserve a wage that enables a stable existence, not one strafed with uncertainty and worry.
Wolf wants to hike the rate to $12 an hour immediately and then incrementally until it reaches $15 an hour in 2027.
Erie Republican state Sen. Dan Laughlin on May 11 introduced Senate Bill 672 to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour and index future raises to the cost of living.
We urge Republicans to join Laughlin and meet Wolf halfway.
Start at $11 an hour, with incremental increases to $15.
From there, mandate future raises indexed to the cost of living so that we never find ourselves in this situation again. If the minimum wage had been indexed when it was created in 1938, we wouldn’t be trapped this never-ending debate. We’d think of it just as Social Security recipients do their annual consumer price index increase.
Opponents of a minimum wage hike say it would be better to let low wages stand and help people find better jobs.
Better for lawmakers to listen to those featured in Bare Minimum, such as Tina Moore, who know the hurdles they face and the path over them.
“People don’t understand how hard it is to pull yourself out of poverty,” Moore said. “It’s not a question of being smart or thoughtful or planning for the future. It’s that you’re forced to make a series of bad decisions and sacrifices when life doesn’t work and it can’t work with wages this low.”