The Legislature’s silence on a minimum wage hike when so many are in need speaks volumes | Opinion

A coalition of progressive advocacy groups rallies on the Pa. Capitol steps to call for better funding for public schools, a higher minimum wage, and other items in the 2019 state budget. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

By Yvette Davis

There’s a common phrase: “Silence speaks volumes.” But what does it mean?

Someone’s silence on an issue can tell you more than words. You can learn a lot about intentions based on when one remains silent rather than take action.

In Harrisburg, the silence of many legislators on the issue of minimum wage speaks volumes about their intentions for Pennsylvanians.

Pennsylvania’s minimum wage has remained unchanged since it went to $7.25 in 2009. Before Governor Ed Rendell signed a 2006 bill to raise wages, they were stagnant for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, other states are raising wages at a rapid pace.

In January, 47 states, cities, and counties increased their minimum wage; 17 reached or exceeded $15 an hour. By the end of 2020, 72 jurisdictions will have higher wages.

Pennsylvania’s neighbors have left the Keystone State in the dust. In New Jersey, wages sit at $11, rising to $12 in 2021. New York wages sit at $11.80, increasing to $12.50 in December. Maryland’s minimum wage also sits at $11 and will rise to $11.75 in January 2021.

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Even Ohio, with the lowest wages of any neighbor ($8.70), has a proposed constitutional amendment to raise wages to $13 by 2025.

There are common threads here. Not only do they outpace us on current wages, but many have existing legislation to raise wages in the future.

When Pennsylvania passed its 2006 wage increase, legislators included a preemption provision that made it impossible for municipalities to set a local wage. Now, Pennsylvania boasts some of the lowest wages in America and holds all the cards in terms of potential changes.

Though Ohio also preempts local wages, with a higher minimum and plans to raise it, they still stand ahead of Pennsylvania.

It seems like a no-brainer, right? Paying workers more lifts hundreds of thousands — even millions — out of poverty. It attracts families to Pennsylvania, rather than sending them packing for greener pastures. It helps cities such as Philadelphia, where nearly one-fourth of residents live in poverty. Minimum wage increases can be pro-business, too. Higher pay equals increased morale and productivity.

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Unfortunately, Republicans do not see things the same way.

Legislation (HB2659) sponsored by Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia, would allow municipalities to set their own minimum wage above the state level. However, the Republican-controlled House Labor and Industry Committee has declined to bring the bill forward for debate or a vote; it has sat untouched since July.

One lesson that this pandemic has taught us is that local leaders know their constituents best and should have an opportunity to make decisions locally.

Communities have different needs that require unique decisions, rather than blanket laws enacted at the state level. Cities like Philadelphia reopened at a slower pace to mitigate the spread, while rural areas with lower case counts could have reopened restaurants and businesses early, if allowed.

The issue of preemption has become a partisan one. Legislators have increasingly used preemption to stop municipalities from passing legislation they don’t like. For Republicans, this means stonewalling efforts to raise wages statewide or on a local level.

Gov. Tom Wolf has made myriad attempts at wage increases, and Republicans have repeatedly said no.

At the same time, Republicans have been quick to fight for local control in other areas. In August, lawmakers introduced bills to push for local control over high school sports and school reopenings.

In July, the House passed bills to strip down Wolf’s emergency declaration and return control to individual counties. In June, Senate Republicans took a lawsuit to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to end the statewide emergency.

Preemption is not a pick and choose option to be used solely for scoring political points. When legislatures rob local officials of the power to make decisions for their communities, the people lose. There are real life consequences here.

Millions have lost work entirely and millions more are struggling as they have seen paychecks get smaller and payrolls tighten. If state legislators continue to deny efforts to raise wages, Pennsylvania will struggle to recover from the pandemic and thrive in its aftermath.

Republicans on the Labor and Industry Committee need to call this bill for a vote, and they need to do it now.

Pennsylvanians cannot afford to wait any longer and struggle at the bare minimum. We urge every member to vote yes to advance the bill to the House floor, so it can be debated and passed into law. Now is not the time to sit on our hands in silence.

The Rev. Yvette Davis is the deputy director of the POWER Interfaith Network. She writes from Harrisburg.