A decade of failing Pennsylvania workers

This month marks 10 years since the Pennsylvania General Assembly voted to raise the state minimum wage. At $7.25 per hour, it is the lowest permitted by federal law.

In the past decade, the majority of states have taken steps to raise their minimum wage above the federal minimum, including every state touching our borders. In fact, a minimum-wage worker in our neighboring states of New York and New Jersey can now earn more than twice what their counterparts in Pennsylvania can earn performing a similar job, simply because of ZIP code.

Nearly three-quarters of surveyed Pennsylvanians support raising the minimum wage to at least $10 per hour, as does Gov. Tom Wolf. Yet, committee chairs in both houses refuse to allow any of the many proposed minimum wage bills to the floor for a vote. Stalling a vote does not stop the problem that full-time working Pennsylvanians struggling to make ends meet cannot earn enough money to provide food, housing and clothing for their families.

Women in particular are disadvantaged by Pennsylvania’s failure to act. Women are the sole or primary source of income for 40 percent of households with children in Pennsylvania. They make up two-thirds of the total number of $7.25-an-hour minimum wage workers in Pennsylvania. A single parent of two children working full time, year-round in Pennsylvania earns $14,500 per year, which is more than $4,500 below the official U.S. poverty line. To fill the gap between Pennsylvania’s minimum and a living wage, they often need to rely on government assistance for food and medical care.

Women also make up three-quarters of the workforce paid the subminimum “tipped” hourly wage of $2.83. Pennsylvania has not increased the tipped wage since 1998.

Some employers are even failing to pay workers minimum wage. When employers fail to pay the minimum wage — including failing to pay the difference between the tipped minimum wage and the regular minimum wage — it is called wage theft. A 2015 study on wage theft in Pennsylvania by the Shiller Center for Social Justice at Temple University revealed a wage theft crisis across the state. Researchers estimated that 397,673 Pennsylvania workers experience a minimum wage violation in a given workweek.

Tipped workers suffer the most. Tipped income is unpredictable and often fails to add up to the regular minimum wage, as required by law. Female tipped workers are twice as likely to subsist on poverty wages than working women overall. They go to work every day not knowing if they will earn enough to feed their kids.

This dynamic creates a predictable situation: Research shows women who earn the federal subminimum wage are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment than their counterparts in states where employers are requite to pay the regular minimum wage before tips.

The restaurant industry, where tips are the norm, is the single largest source of sexual harassment charges filed by women, a rate five times higher than any other industry, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Research shows raising the regular minimum wage reduces the gender wage gap in Pennsylvania. The current wage gap, on average, between Pennsylvania women and men is 21 cents to the dollar. The gap is higher for African-American women at 32 cents to the dollar and even higher for Latina women at 44 cents to the dollar.

Every cent counts: wage gaps in states with a minimum wage above $8 per hour are 22 percent smaller than the gap in states with a $7.25 minimum wage.

Arguments against raising the minimum wage rely on myths that misleadingly pit workers against business interests and the economy. Research shows that raising the wage will actually benefit the local economy and businesses, and save tax dollars subsidizing workers unable to earn a living wage in Pennsylvania.  

This is not a 10-year anniversary to celebrate. Every year Pennsylvania fails to act, our workers fall further behind, and our families sink deeper into poverty. It is time for the General Assembly to vote to increase the minimum wage again.

Terry L. Fromson is managing attorney of the Women’s Law Project, the only public interest legal organization in Pennsylvania devoted to the rights of women and girls.