A decade since the last increase in the minimum wage in Pennsylvania, both Republican and Democratic state leaders appear ready to negotiate a higher rate.
But just how high could be a sticking point.
While Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed the hourly minimum reach $12 by July, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, told the Centre Daily Times he’s looking at number in “mid-$8 range” based on cost-of-living adjustments.
Minimum wage statewide has been $7.25 since 2009, in line with the federal minimum that last increased that year. Pennsylvania lawmakers themselves last approved a higher minimum in 2006, when Ed Rendell was governor.
“We’re open to having a discussion. We think it’s an important discussion to have,” Corman said at a Feb. 25 luncheon in Harrisburg. “It’s like anything else: Do you want the issue, or do you want it accomplished? And if we want to get something accomplished, I think there’s ways we can go about doing it.”
A week later, Corman told the CDT he remains committed to talking with the Wolf administration — on the condition that the Democratic governor and his supporters are willing to back down from the $12 figure. The governor’s proposal includes additional increases to push the minimum to $15 in 2025.
Corman called the Wolf pitch too aggressive but said he believes there’s room for compromise. In each state bordering Pennsylvania, the minimum has climbed to at least $1 an hour more than the rate in the commonwealth.
Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said the governor has been discussing the minimum wage with various legislative leaders and will continue to do so. He neither confirmed nor denied whether Wolf is willing to entertain a minimum of less than $12.
“Outside of a small minority, including those who support eliminating the minimum wage altogether, we believe there is significant support for going above $7.25 an hour,” Abbott said. “We are encouraged by the openness of some leaders to entertain an increase, and Gov. Wolf looks forward to hearing further from them on what they believe is fair.”
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said he can’t remember the last time a Republican state leader has publicly brought up the issue of minimum wage. He doesn’t recall serious negations since Republicans won control of the state House in 2010, he said.
“The big news is he’s willing to talk about it,” Madonna said of Corman. “I think when you have (a) majority leader saying, ‘Let’s talk about it,’ that’s a sign there’s a willingness to engage in negotiations.”
Talk about raising the minimum wage on the federal level has also been making the news. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., announced Feb. 26 his co-sponsorship of the Raise the Wage Act of 2019, which would boost the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024. It also would eliminate a sub-minimum wage for young workers and those with disabilities.
“For far too long, working families have gotten the short end of the stick,” Casey said in a release.
The biggest factor behind increased interest in raising the wage — from both parties — is its popularity in the polls, Madonna said. Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute for Public Opinion, agreed.
“Polls on the issue show overwhelming support for some degree of increase for minimum wage of the existing federal standard,” Borick said. A lot of national polls show majority support for increases to the range of $12 an hour to $15 an hour, he said.
The daily Hill-HarrisX poll on Jan. 24 showed 55 percent of respondents want the federal minimum wage to be increased to $15 either immediately or gradually, while 27 percent believe it should be raised by a lesser amount. Eleven percent said it should remain unchanged, and 5 percent favor reducing or eliminating it.
“The public certainly wants to see a shift in this,” Borick said. “A lot of working-class voters are among that group that are an important constituency that Republicans have tried to make inroads with, especially since 2016 and President (Donald) Trump’s success with that portion of the electorate — white, working-class voters.”
As elected officials pay more attention to working-class voters, they hear more about the concerns of everyday workers and start vocalizing those concerns, in turn sparking more interest from voters, Borick said. He pointed to a push-pull cycle between politicians and voters.
“When elected officials and candidates like Bernie Sanders are pushing issues like this, people hear more of it; they think about it. And when they think about it, elected officials start to react and start the cycle,” he said.
Market factors are another reason there’s been less resistance — including from the business community — to an increase, Borick and Madonna said.
Even though the business community is heavily opposed to a higher minimum wage, Madonna said, most businesses are paying above the minimum to stay competitive.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ March 2018 report, 2.3 percent of all hourly paid employees in the U.S. were making minimum wage or less in 2017. The market largely “has pushed past” the $7.25 wage, Borick said.
“And so now it’s, I believe, easier for Republicans to make a case that it might be time to consider some type of increase,” he said.
What’s at stake?
Still, Alex Halper, director of Government Affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said chamber members — particularly small business owners — have deep concerns with the governor’s wage proposal. They feel there’s a disconnect between those discussing policies and reality for employers across the state, he said.
“I would challenge supporters of this proposal to go to their local neighborhood restaurant or coffee shop and ask the owner if they are prepared” for the impact, he said. “It’s just a lack of recognition of how employers have to operate, control and manage their budgets, and keep their workforce employed.”
To Halper, who also sits on the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Advisory Board, any amount of wage increase is a risk to employment.
“I think many employers simply don’t know how they would absorb those cost increases,” he said. “It’s a very aggressive proposal. It’s a very significant increase in a short period of time. It calls for eliminating the tip credit, which is the system most restaurants use.”
More than half of minimum-wage earners work in food and drink establishments, Halper added. “So that’s a dramatic increase in labor costs that, if implemented, will absolutely result in hour reductions, other benefits reduced and almost certainly job loss.”
Jamie Yurick, president of the Seven Mountains Central Labor Council, which covers Centre, Mifflin, Juniata and Huntingdon counties, made just a little above minimum wage 16 years ago as a bricklayer before joining the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers of Pennsylvania.
He gets tired of businesses’ arguing that to raise wages, they have to raise prices, he said. Yurick believes that more money in the pockets of workers will increase their buying power and in turn put more money into the market, he said.
“Look at it this way: Every dollar more that they’re making, they’re putting back into the community, back into the restaurants, back into the grocery stores, back into buying fuel and clothing,” Yurick said.
Corman said Wolf -- and his supporters -- need to acknowledge a minimum of $12 an hour to $15 an hour “is not a reasonable request.” He believes an increase that high “would be a shock for the economy” and spur layoffs and reductions in hours, he said.
A 2018 study by the state’s Independent Fiscal Office projected a minimum wage of $12 per hour would lead to raises for 460,000 workers and the loss of 33,300 jobs over the three-year phase-in period.
The Wolf administration took issue with the job-loss projection, saying it doesn’t provide full context.
“Other states and cities have raised their minimum wage and not seen this impact over time,” Abbott said. “Pennsylvania workers are getting a raw deal compared to other states, including all of our neighbors, who have raised their minimum wages and not experienced the negative impacts that opponents always seem to use when debating this issue.”
Without action, Abbott said, many full-time workers will continue to be impoverished.
“And every Pennsylvanian will pay more for public benefit programs for those working who still can’t make ends meet,” he said.