Raising the minimum wage: Economic justice for Pennsylvania's workers

In my 10 years as a legislator, I’ve always tried to err on the side of altruistic caution in my support of programs and legislation that help those who need it most. You know them: the underprivileged, the marginalized, the single mother with three kids, three jobs, and no generational wealth.

Pushback from the opponents of these measures herald the line “help those who help themselves” in response to proposals that would alleviate the burdens of poverty. But what about those showing up to work every day only to be left fielding debt after bills decimate their paycheck, leaving no possibility of an investment in themselves or their family’s future?

The idea that simply working hard will put you ahead and provide the means to not only succeed, but to thrive, is a myth. The idea that simply working hard will allow one to sustain themselves, let alone their family, is detached from the realities of our economic landscape. Promising the ability to make ends meet and not the assurance that hard work will provide for social mobility is a recipe for a dissatisfied and disheartened workforce.

A minimum wage should be a livable wage, as the federal minimum wage was intended to be. It should not only provide enough to scrape by while forcing choices between necessities such as food, health care, childcare, transportation, and paying off debt.

It’s been a decade since I first introduced my minimum wage bill. Every session, my bills get sent to the House Labor and Industry committee, where they sit for two years and die, waiting to begin the cycle again.

Minimum wage workers don’t have time to watch us rinse and repeat the minimum wage bill. The 2 million employees in PA who would immediately benefit from a $15 minimum wage need results now.

Inflation has eroded purchasing power across the board. Significant spikes in the cost of living have ensnared even median wage earners in the many times lifelong trap of living paycheck to paycheck. An increase guarantees a positive impact on our local economies, as it would put more money into the pockets of workers who are likely to spend it on goods and services, thereby driving economic growth and job creation.

In the face of economic and public health struggles, we have relied on our frontline workers, yet when the reversal thereof causes our ever-celebrated workforce to rely on our government, not for handouts or stimulus checks, but to be fairly represented in policy and advocation of their rights as workers that ensure a livable wage, it is somehow considered deplorable, greedy or dovetailed with socialism.

Believe it or not, people would rather work to provide for themselves rather than receive aid from government-funded programs. Working 40 hours or more a week should provide a decent living without having to turn to government assistance for basic needs.

This increase would be a critical step toward ensuring that all Pennsylvania workers are able to support themselves and achieve financial freedom from the dependence on government programs.

They are not just teens and students earning some extra pocket change, as some consistently argue, but are people who use their buying power to support their families and keep others working. They are real people in our community – like the woman who wrote me to say she’s working 60 hours a week at three different hotels to make ends meet. She said she wanted to see Pennsylvania raise the minimum wage so she can spend more time with her children. As a mother of two, the letter resonated with me.

Pennsylvania is also weakened in workforce development compared with the 29 other states that have already moved beyond the federal minimum wage. We are one of the only states in the northeast part of the nation that still relies on the federal minimum wage. Every state bordering Pennsylvania has a higher minimum wage, which sends a message to our workers that they are not valued because it’s still legal to pay them $7.25.

In our labor market, job openings have outpaced hiring for several months. If a wage increase were to take effect, Pennsylvania would become a competitive market for workers, attracting more candidates to fill those job openings. If we want to mitigate high turnover rates, we have to offer a premium salary.

We can help to alleviate some worker shortages by raising not only the wage but the standard in treatment workers can come to expect in Pennsylvania. When people know Pennsylvania as a place where workers are rewarded for their contributions, they will flock here.

Those who oppose a raise point to the jobs lost. But as people working multiple jobs to stay afloat shed their second and third jobs, they are opened to the workforce. It is better for two people to have one good-paying job each than for one person to have three with poor wages.

In 2006, we voted to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.15 per hour. Since that time, lawmaker salaries have risen by over $13,000 automatically through a cost-of-living index while everyone else’s was raised 10 cents. How can we justify giving ourselves automatic pay raises, but not the people we serve?

This is a chance to immediately help hundreds of thousands of working people help themselves and our economy. I urge my fellow lawmakers to support this effort and to stand with our state's low-wage workers in achieving economic justice for all Pennsylvania residents. Together, we can make Pennsylvania a place where our lowest-paid workers can rely on fair, family-sustaining, and equitable pay for the essential work they perform.