By Samuel O’Neal | Pennsylvania Capital-Star
Mary Gabriele earns $10 an hour working at Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities as a peer mentor, tutoring students with intellectual disabilities. Her full-time student course load doesn’t allow her to work as much as she’d like, making it hard for a paycheck to cover the cost of necessities like groceries.
“[A wage hike] would definitely make a difference,” Gabriele said. “I do dog walking on the side and stuff because I can’t just live as a student getting my groceries and food at just $10 an hour.”
Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour, the same as the federal minimum. And it hasn’t been raised since 2009.
Democrats in the Pennsylvania Legislature believe it is only a matter of time before Republicans vote in favor of raising the state’s minimum wage.
For Gabriele and many other Pennsylvania workers earning less than $15 an hour, the wage increase would be significant. Some workers must resort to working multiple jobs in order to pay rent, child care costs, bills and other expenses, Gabriele said.
On June 13, Democrats on the Pennsylvania House Labor and Industry Committee sent the full chamber a bill that would increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2026. It could come up for a final vote as soon as this week.
Democrats’ optimism regarding a potential wage hike being implemented is based on the fact that Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, is the lead sponsor of the bill to increase the minimum wage to $11 an hour in 2024, and then to $15 an hour by 2026.
The wage would be permanently indexed to inflation after that, the northwestern Pennsylvania lawmaker said in a statement posted to his website.
“The minimum wage in Pennsylvania has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009, which is far too long,” Rep. Jason Dawkins, D-Philadelphia, the prime sponsor of the wage hike bill (House Bill 1500) told the Capital-Star in a statement.
“The people of the commonwealth deserve fair compensation for their work, and this is a step in that direction,” Dawkins said. “But make no mistake, this is a compromise. If it was entirely up to Democrats, we would do it for real and it would have all the bells and whistles that folks deserve because that’s what we believe in — people.”
Pennsylvania is one of 20 states with a minimum wage at the federal minimum of $7.25. In neighboring states New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Delaware and Maryland, the minimum wage is at least $3 higher than the federal minimum.
If Pennsylvania was able to match the minimum wage of its neighboring states, it would actually help the state’s economy, Marc Stier, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Policy Center, a progressive think-tank in Harrisburg, said.
According to the labor-friendly Keystone Research Center, the average increase in annual income for affected workers is almost $4,500.
About 1.5 million people in the state would be affected by a potential wage hike, some make under $15 an hour now, while others are making just over $15 but would see their wages go up as businesses adjust to a higher wage scale.
“Pennsylvanians can cross borders,” Stier said. “Pennsylvanians on the borders of New York, Maryland and New Jersey and possibly Delaware as well, can go to those states to work and thus we’re losing tax revenue and if someone makes good money across the border they’re going to keep working across the border.”
The wage hike would be even more significant to those living in major cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In the fourth quarter of 2022, the average monthly rent for Philadelphia residents was $1,768, according to Axios.
In Pittsburgh, the average monthly rent for residents is between $1,300 and $1,630 in 2023. Thirty-one percent of renters in the city are paying more than $1,500 per month on rent, according to Rent.com.
“The pay does not match what you actually have to pay for things,” Gabriele said. “Inflation is going up but our wage is not going up. Some people argue that if the minimum wage goes up, inflation will go up. Well, it’s already happening even if there’s no wage increase, it’s already happening.”
For college students and young adults who are working minimum-wage jobs and paying their own expenses for the first time, keeping up with rent can be a challenge.
For students who balance work with classes and other extracurricular academic activities and do not have the time to work many hours, making rent can be nearly impossible.
Gabriele balances a full-time student course load while working as a tutor for students with special needs. Under the proposed wage hike, she would earn $5 more per hour.
“Some people have three jobs,” Gabriele said. “If you are paying rent and you don’t have any help, it is so hard to balance the work and studies and you barely have any time to sleep or breathe because you are always focusing on making a living and getting through that.”
The same sentiment can be expressed for those who do not have a college degree and work a minimum wage job full-time.
Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford, offered, and later withdrew, an amendment to the House Democrats’ $15 minimum wage bill that only those with a high school degree or GED can get $15 minimum wage.
“It’s important we can tell kids, If you drop out of school, you might only make $15,000 a year,” Roae said. “If you graduate, you can make $30,000. That’s an important message.”
Stier called Roae’s amendment “absurd,” saying it is never okay to treat people differently based on their level of education.
“In what democratic society do we treat people differently depending on their level of education?” Stier said. “People deserve to be paid a decent wage for the work they do in ways they can support their families that allows them to live comfortably and in dignity and it doesn’t matter whether they have a high school degree or not.”
In years past, House Democrats’ attempts to raise the minimum wage have been shot down by Republicans who claim a wage hike would result in a loss of jobs.
In 2019, now-state Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, and current Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, voted against raising the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour. A compromise bill negotiated by Republicans and former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf failed in the state House.
Stier believes if the minimum wage is increased, employers who are hiring more workers and passing costs up to consumers will no longer be at a competitive disadvantage. If the minimum wage floor is lifted for all employers, it will expand the number of workers looking for jobs, he said.
“This is the best possible time to raise the minimum wage,” Stier said. “[Losing jobs] is simply not going to happen now because employers are desperate to hire. They are hiring everyone they can and they are already raising wages.”