Demonstrators participate in a protest outside of McDonald’s corporate headquarters on January 15, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. The protest was part of a nationwide effort calling for minimum wage to be raised to $15-per-hour (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images).
(*This commentary was updated at 3:22 p.m. on Sunday, 1/29/23 to correct a statistic about buying power.)
By Claire Kovach
Pennsylvania stands out in the region for what it didn’t do over the New Year holiday—we didn’t raise our minimum wage.
Neighboring states Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware all raised their minimum wage between Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
Because of the minimum wage increases, more than 1.6 million workers in states bordering Pennsylvania joined 6.7 million other U.S. workers outside Pennsylvania, and together, rang in the New Year with a much-needed pay raise. Yet another year has passed, and Pennsylvania’s minimum wage remains at $7.25 per hour, stagnant since 2009.
Low-wage workers in the Commonwealth are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet as the cost of necessities rise. The buying power of the minimum wage has plummeted in the almost 14 years since it was last increased in Pennsylvania and is now worth less in real (inflation-adjusted) terms than at any point since 1956.
Thirty states and Washington, DC, have already responded to calls to raise state minimums, many on schedules with set yearly increases.
Some have tied their new state minimum wage to inflation so that minimum-wage workers will see their wages rise each year as the cost of living goes up in the future. Increasing the minimum wage helps struggling families pay for groceries, rent, utilities, and other necessities.
It rewards work and shows that we value people who work hard. Many workers who would benefit from an increased minimum wage are the very same workers we called “heroes” and “essential” during the height of the pandemic—but as we enter the fourth year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we still haven’t put our money where our mouth is.
Last November marked the 10th anniversary of the Fight for $15, worker-led movement, fighting for fairer pay and workplace rights. In seven of those years, Pennsylvania’s governor proposed raising our minimum wage. In 2022, our governor’s proposal plan aimed to have a $15-per-hour minimum wage by 2028.
This proposal influenced more than a handful of bills that stalled in committee and, ultimately, the legislative majority failed to advance a minimum wage increase bill.
Meanwhile, the surrounding states of Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York are already on scheduled paths to $15 per hour state-wide, with some localities within New York and Maryland already paying at or above $15 per hour today. Almost one and a half million Pennsylvanians earn wages less than $15 per hour.
One of these workers will be the parking enforcement officer that a small Pennsylvania town is hiring. In an advertisement listed in the first week of January this year, the job posting called for an applicant willing to work 25-30 hours per week on their feet, outside in inclement weather, with occasional court appearances, for a starting pay of $9 per hour with no benefits.
The living wage for that town—pay that MIT researchers estimate is high enough for a single worker with no children to get by on without public assistance but with zero dollars allotted for any savings or entertainment—is only pennies shy of $15 per hour.
While the town may ultimately get an applicant—perhaps someone with a strong sense of duty and enough savings to live on—the job posting got almost two dozen comments from local residents, most of whom criticized the pay level, calling it “horrible,” “cheap,” and “sad.”
The majority of Pennsylvanians
A 2022 Data for Progress/Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center poll of likely voters from Pennsylvania showed overwhelming support for putting Pennsylvania on a four-year path to $15 per hour (73%) with a yearly cost of living increase (77%) each subsequent year. Raising the minimum wage is good policy and good politics.
Workers are struggling, and years of legislative inaction have taken their toll. As of this week, the minimum-wage worker who stands where I stood in Pennsylvania more than a dozen years ago is earning the exact same wage I earned back then—a buying power down 27%—while the living wage for that county is more than $15 per hour.
Action surrounding minimum wage policy will be an early test for new Pennsylvania House leadership—will the Legislature finally begin to get in line with the opinions of the majority of Pennsylvanians?
Claire Kovach PH.D is the senior research analyst at the Keystone Research Center, a progressive think-tank in Harrisburg. Her work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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