It has been almost 10 years since the federal minimum wage was last raised in July 2009.
During a rally held at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte on Monday, a coalition of labor unions, community organizations, student groups and residents made their demand clear: Raise the wage.
Co-coordinator Zach Zobrist spoke on behalf of the Centre County Wage Justice Coalition, saying that Pennsylvania has been left behind in the effort to improve residents’ lives by raising the minimum wage. Activists on Harrisburg also planned to hold a rally outside of the governor’s mansion on Monday afternoon.
“We are doing everything in our power to make sure lawmakers don’t leave the legislature this June without ensuring all working people in Pennsylvania the right to a living wage,” said co-coordinator Renee Chernega, 27, of State College.
Unable to afford contacts, Chernega spoke during Monday’s rally with rain on her glasses. Chernega currently works three part-time jobs as a substitute teacher, in a sewing factory and at a security company. She also does yard work and is a member of a festival operations team.
Pennsylvania’s minimum wage has remained stagnant at $7.25 for a decade, the lowest wage allowed by United States law.
Gov. Tom Wolf has called for an increase to the minimum wage since he took office. In January, Wolf proposed a raise to the state rate to $12 by July 1, and increasing it by 50 cents each year, reaching $15 an hour by 2025.
Raise the Wage advocates argue the current rate is not enough, and their list of demands emulate Wolf’s January proposal. At Monday’s rally, participants said Centre County workers’ and their families’ lives are in danger because of low wages, tenuous job security and wage theft.
“It is socialism for the rich when this government subsidizes low wage workers’ health care, clothing (and) food,” said Dan Long, Unit 31 President of Communications Workers of America, adding that he has seen many workers in Centre County suffer.
In addition to Wolf’s plan to raise minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025, Raise the Wage calls for an end to laws that prevent local communities from raising wages higher than state minimums. In their demands, employers of tipped workers would be required to make up the difference if tips do not bring their weekly income to what they would earn at $7.25.
A Temple University study found that wage theft results in the loss of millions of dollars for workers and law-abiding businesses. Because of wage theft, Pennsylvania’s economy suffers as a whole, the study states.
Chernega said she has been working minimum wage jobs since she was 15 years old in order to better herself. Having no savings, she added that she is no better off than when she started. Chernega said she wants to go back to school; however, her plans are deterred each month by bills.
“I don’t ever want to find myself in debt and still working jobs like these,” she said.
Robin Moussa, 21, graduated from Penn State in June. At the rally, Moussa described how challenging it is to balance work and school responsibilities. Having worked nights for 30 hours per week in a fast food restaurant as a student, Moussasaid having to depend on a minimum wage salary is “legitimately terrifying.” For Moussa, she was able to ask her parents for financial support if there were times she did not have enough money to cover groceries or rent, but she recognizes not everyone has that luxury.
“How can we be expected to support ourselves through getting an education when our employers don’t pay us enough to survive?” Moussa said.
Raise the Wage supporters aim to prevent wage theft by asking elected officials to create larger penalties and stronger enforcement in order to hold employers accountable.
Finally, Raise the Wage demands an annual adjustment to the minimum wage, depending on the growth in median hourly wages.
Workers’ suffering, Long said, has to stop, starting with Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township.
In March, Corman told the Centre Daily Times he’s looking at a minimum wage number in “mid-$8 range” based on cost-of-living adjustments.
Chernega does not believe that rate to be high enough.
“My message for Corman is, if he thinks $8.50 is enough to get by on, then why doesn’t he try it out himself?” Chernega said.
In an email Monday, Corman told the CDT the Senate is continuing to have a discussion in order to “get to a place where all parties agree.”
Following the demonstration, about 20 rally participants marched to the offices of Corman and state Representative Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, to discuss their demands.
“On my own, it’s risky to speak up about problems at work,” Chernega said. “But collectively, we can push for structural change.”