OP-ED: Minimum wage hike overdue

York Dispatch editorial board
About twenty people from CASA rally outside the Governor's Mansion in Harrisburg in support of Governor Wolf's minimum wage hike proposal, Monday, June 17, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

With the federal $2 trillion coronavirus relief package a done deal, a bit of unfinished business needs tending to in Pennsylvania: the state’s paltry minimum wage.

When U.S. Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled that a federal minimum wage increase did not comply with the rules governing passage of the relief bill, Pennsylvania’s working poor saw their best chance in years of a wage increase vanish.

That’s because state lawmakers haven’t increased the minimum wage since George W. Bush was in office. The last hike, in 2009, came about only because the federal floor was raised. To paraphrase an old Chris Rock joke, state lawmakers would let employers pay their workers less, but it would be illegal.

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Some state lawmakers, that is. Gov. Tom Wolf has been trying to hike the pittance practically since being sworn into office six years ago. He has repeatedly run into resistance by Republicans who control the state’s General Assembly. The governor’s latest proposal would increase the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour on July 1, then add 50 cents a year until reaching an hourly $15 in 2027.

Frankly, $12 an hour isn’t much. But it’s a small fortune compared to the state’s current lowest legal wage of $7.25 an hour. That’s just $58 a day or, to put in terms understandable by state lawmakers, less than one-third the amount of the daily per diem they receive when the state legislature is in session.

Still, business leaders and some Republican lawmakers are doing their best to throw up roadblocks, citing disparities between urban and rural costs of living, the impact on small businesses, and the relatively small number of low-paid workers who would benefit.

“The government should stay out of free enterprise and let free enterprise do its job — as it has in (northeast Pennsylvania),” John Augustine, president and CEO of the economic development agency Penn’s Northeast, told the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre.

Spoken like someone who does not need to subsist on $7.25 an hour.

There is some Republican support for boosting the bottom wage — but not by much. State Sens. Dan Laughlin and Pat Browne, from Erie and Lehigh counties respectively, are urging an increase to $10 an hour. (Or, less than one-half the amount of the daily per diem state lawmakers receive when the state legislature is in session.)

That would move a family of three living in poverty to … well, a better class of poverty.

“If this bill passed, people working full time for $10 an hour will still be living in poverty,” Democratic Rep. Patty Kim of Dauphin County, who has long pushed for raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The yearly salary at $10 an hour is below $20,000. I don’t know how someone, let alone with children, can survive on that.”

How, indeed. While Republican receptiveness to raising the minimum wage is welcome, as would be any increase after more than a decade at the lowest legal level, it’s well past time the state move to implement a substantive living wage for the tens of thousands of workers laboring on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

After all, a $15-an-hour minimum wage is still only about three-quarters of the daily legislative per diem.