HARRISBURG — As Pennsylvania's legislature prepares to tackle the state budget in the coming weeks, lawmakers and advocates are pushing legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, a change that could lift the incomes of more than 250,000 residents in Philadelphia alone.
The longstanding fight over whether to boost the minimum wage of $7.25 — the same as the federal minimum — is bound to be front and center as legislators return to the Capitol on Monday to begin trying to wrap up the budget by the June 30 deadline. Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, proposed an increase to $12 as part of his budget proposal this year, and several Democratic lawmakers and at least one Republican senator also support a hike.
Advocates say an increase would not only help low-income families live more comfortably, but help bolster the economy by giving more people more spending power. Critics counter that it would cost jobs as businesses hire fewer people.
Whether the issue comes up for a vote remains a question mark. It's an election year, when legislators tend to avoid taking on controversial topics and engaging in prolonged partisan fights.
But pressure has been building to at least consider it: Pennsylvania's minimum wage has been stagnant for 11 years, even as bordering states have pegged theirs at $8.25 to $10.40. And even the Republican nominee for governor favors a slight increase.
Work should be "a pathway out of poverty, not just another form of it," said the Rev. Liz Bidgood Enders, president of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, at a rally Thursday of advocates for a higher minimum wage.
Republicans control both the House and Senate, and its leaders have the power to decide if a bill moves to the floor for a vote. For years, GOP leaders have balked at an increase, with many saying they would prefer the federal government to deal with the question of whether a hike is necessary.
In all, 29 states started the year with minimum wages higher than the federal standard, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor. New Jersey's is $8.60 per hour, while Delaware has $8.25. Maryland's minimum wage is $9.25 and New York's is $10.40.
According to the Keystone Research Center, a liberal think tank in Harrisburg, a single adult in Allegheny County making minimum wage earns a little over $15,000 a year, while the cost of living is more than $32,000. In Philadelphia, with that same annual income, a resident faces a cost of living above $33,000. One child adds $769 and $824, respectively, to monthly expenses or over $9,000 yearly.
Raising the minimum wage to $15 would lead to a hike in the incomes of 216,710 Allegheny County residents and 253,698 Philadelphians, totaling a $893.7 million and $1.1 billion increase, respectively, according to the Keystone Research Center. In all, only 49,000 Pennsylvania residents are getting paid the minimum wage — but more than 1 million are in jobs earning less than $12 an hour, according to the state's Independent Fiscal Office.
In a statement Thursday, Wolf urged legislative action, calling a raise to minimum wage "well past time." Though Wolf called for an increase to $12 in his budget address earlier this year, he has advocated raising it to $15 in years past.
His Republican opponent in the governor's race, State Sen. Scott Wagner (R., York), has said he would support a smaller hike. Wagner, who owns a waste disposal company, favors an increase to $8.75 over three years.
Opponents urge legislators to focus on other matters.
Increasing the minimum wage would cause job cuts, said Alex Halper, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
"We've heard feedback from Pennsylvania employers," he said, "who indicated how increasing entry-level wages have forced them to reduce hours for their employees, cut back on positions entirely, to curtail expansion plans — things like that."
Halper said a state earned-income tax program would be a better step to help low-income families. The Keystone Research Center says the federal tax credit coupled with a higher minimum wage is more effective, based on states that have hiked the hourly rate.
Government-mandated wage increases have a perverse negative effect, said Kevin Shivers, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents smaller firms.
Employers are hiring now and paying more in order to find and keep competent employees, he said, using the minimum wage for entry-level workers. If pay increases for less-skilled workers, it would force employers to raise it for those higher on the wage scale and lead to fewer hires, Shivers said.
"Ultimately, the people who get harmed the most by raising the minimum wage are teenagers and those people trying to re-enter the workforce," he said.
Rep. Patty Kim (D., Dauphin) has introduced three minimum-wage bills, and said she is frustrated nothing has happened.
Kim's most recent bill would raise the wage to $12 an hour, and then increase it by 50 cents every year thereafter until 2024, when it would reach $15. In later years, the state labor secretary would calculate an annual cost of living adjustment. A similar measure has been introduced by Sen. Tina Tartaglione (D., Phila.).
"What are we waiting for? What are we afraid of?" Kim said, later adding: "Let's level the playing field."