Activists mount last-ditch push for minimum wage hike in Pennsylvania
HARRISBURG — As York resident Mirna Gonzalez stood among about 20 activists outside the governor's mansion Monday, the resounding chants of "¡ahora!" illustrated an urgency to see a minimum wage increase included in the state budget as the June 30 deadline looms.
"The raise is something we need right now," Gonzalez said. "We can't live a full life. Families aren't able to take their kids to movies. They can't buy snacks. It's hard. We have to choose between between paying bills or buying food."
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who has pushed for increasing the $7.25 minimum wage since taking office in 2014, most recently suggested a sliding-scale approach in his $34.1 billion budget proposal.
Rather than immediately raise the wage to $15 an hour, the governor proposed hiking the hourly minimum to $12. The wage would then increase 50 cents an hour annually until 2025, when it would reach $15.
The move would affect 2.2 million Pennsylvanians, according to the Keystone Research Center.
"Raising the minimum wage continues to be one of Gov. Wolf’s top priorities in budget negotiations," said spokesman JJ Abbott. "It is the fiscally smart and morally right thing to do. There is no good reason to further delay an increase."
Activists from the immigrant-advocacy organization CASA demonstrated outside the governor's mansion on Monday after a day of visiting the offices of GOP legislative leaders, many of whom have opposed wage hikes in the past.
But this year— at least in the state Senate— Republicans are more open to discussions, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, has said.
"I said in March that I was open to a discussion to consider changing the minimum wage," Corman said Monday in a statement. "We are continuing to have that discussion so we can get to a place where all parties agree.”
That openness comes with a caveat, as a consensus has formed among GOP lawmakers that Wolf's proposed wage hike is too high and could lead to what the state Independent Fiscal Office called "significant labor market disruptions," including the potential loss of 34,000 jobs.
House Republicans have been less vocal on the matter. And last week, Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, told The PLS Reporter the wage hike wasn't on the table for budget talks.
A spokesman for Saylor on Tuesday wouldn't elaborate on the stance beyond citing the Republican's concerns with the IFO's findings and clarifying the lawmaker hasn't "closed the door" on different wage proposals that may come in the future.
But House GOP Caucus spokesman Mike Straub cited the party's hesitance regarding the increase and desire to focus on filling vacant career and technical education jobs instead.
"Our members are committed to pursuing policies that help the lowest earners in the commonwealth," Straub said. "But those policies can't come at the expense of those very jobs those Pennsylvanians rely on."
Proponents argue a raised minimum wage would improve residents' quality of life and thrust more money into the local economy.
Kevin Schreiber, president of the York County Economic Alliance, was hesitant to take a firm stance on the increase. He acknowledged the potential benefits, but he emphasized facts remains to be seen regarding the full economic impact should the increase go into effect.
"In a very tight, strong economy we recognize the effect that compensation has on talent attraction and retention," Shreiber said. "We have seen labor rates increase as the economy and available labor force has tightened. We also recognize the need for a phased approach so that businesses may have some level of predictability in order to properly plan for changes in the economic landscape."
But as the debate rolls on, Pennsylvania continues to fall behind.
Those advocating for an increase have been living with the $7.25 an hour statute for a decade, when Pennsylvania matched the updated federal minimum in 2009.
Since then, 29 states have increased their minimum wages — 20 of them this year.
"I thought Pennsylvania was better than this," said Jose Nuñez, a Lancaster native at Monday's demonstration. "I thought we were at the forefront. But I see we're not there anymore."
— Logan Hullinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.