As Pennsylvania’s budget deadline approaches, is a minimum wage increase still on the table?

By: - June 14, 2019 2:25 pm

(Courtesy Pennsylvania House Democrats)

Jennie Groff describes herself as a “CEO in training.”

With her husband Jonathan, Groff owns the Stroopie Co., a dessert company that employs nine resettled refugee women. They operate the business out of the Sweet Shoppe in downtown Lancaster City, where they also sell candy and ice cream.

The starting wage? $11 an hour.

Groff met with First Lady Frances Wolf on Thursday as part of an ongoing push by state Democrats to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $12 an hour.

With the sweet aroma of stroopwafel filling the cozy Lancaster spot, Groff spoke warmly of trying to make her employees’ lives as successful as possible. Many of the women she employs make $14 or $15 an hour, she said. 

The company is a B Corporation, meaning it must demonstrate how it cares for people and planet, not just profit.

“Our shareholders and other owners know that’s going to affect our overall profit,” Groff said. “But [caring for our workers] is just as important.”

As Stroopie Co. grows, Groff said they want to find more ways to benefit their workers. That includes continuing to raise wages.

“We’re really committed to that,” Groff said. “And it’s working.”

But in Harrisburg, talks around the issue are much chillier.

On Tuesday, House Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, told the PLS Reporter, a subscription-based Capitol news outlet, that a minimum wage increase was “not on the table.”

Two days later, Rep. Patty Kim — a Dauphin County Democrat and longtime supporter of a higher minimum wage — tweeted that budget talks on the issue had “stalled.”

“I’m incredibly frustrated that House Republicans have decided to start now in trying to put together a minimum wage option,” she told the Capital-Star. “They don’t think they can find something they can all agree on by the end of June.”

Bill Patton, a spokesperson for Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said Friday he wouldn’t describe the talks as stalled, but added, “We are very concerned.”

“Rep. Kim is correct to be concerned,” he said. “We are, too, that the Republican caucus has made virtually no effort to discuss this issue or come to a consensus even among themselves.”

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said via email “minimum wage and many other policy discussions are still on-going as part of budget discussions.”

“Pennsylvania currently has more job openings in many sectors than qualified people to fill those positions, many of which pay far more than minimum wage,” Straub continued. “Our caucus is focused on funding pathways to education and training so more Pennsylvanians can fill those openings, rather than compressing resources on those earning the very minimum, which every [Independent Fiscal Office] study shows will result in thousands of jobs being cut.”

Gov. Tom Wolf has made increasing the minimum wage a centerpiece of his budgets since taking office in 2015.

This year, he proposed raising the base wage to $12 an hour in July and gradually to $15 an hour. The nonpartisan Independent Fiscal Office, which provides financial analysis to the General Assembly, estimates that the initial increase would mean higher wages for more than 1 million jobs. Wages for these workers would collectively rise $3.5 billion, while an estimated 34,000 jobs would be lost.

A poll from Franklin & Marshall College found that 69 percent of Pennsylvania voters support raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour.

Both Kim and Patton said Democrats will continue to push the issue.

“Every session where we bring up the minimum wage, it wasn’t the top priority,” Kim said. “As we’ve applied more pressure every year, the minimum wage issue has made it to the top of the list.”

“To see it at the table then taken away so quickly because stakeholders in the House Republicans can’t decide on a number they can agree with is a slap in the face to low-wage workers.”

Kim said she believes a minimum wage increase has a better chance in the Senate.

“They have a smaller gap in terms of reaching a majority to a minimum wage they can agree on,” she said.

Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, has appeared open to an increase of some kind. While he called $12 a non-starter in February, he told reporters a “modest increase” in the base wage “could be something we could talk about.”

Jenn Kocher, Corman’s spokesperson, said Thursday via email, “We continue to be open to a discussion on a reasonable minimum wage.”

Brittany Crampsie, spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said the minimum wage is the lawmaker’s “No. 1 priority” in budget talks.

“There’s no reason to believe it’s dead,” Crampsie added.

Pennsylvania’s budget deadline is June 30. The House and Senate are able to draft and introduce their own spending bills, which means Senate lawmakers may advance legislation with a minimum wage increase even if the lower chamber doesn’t.

Still, the same bill must pass both chambers by a simple majority.

Kim said she’s confident there are enough legislators who would vote for an increase of some kind.

“I’ve heard House Republicans say, ‘We think it’s time,'” she said.

When asked by the Capital-Star about Saylor’s comments, Wolf said he found them “surprising.”

“I thought we were having some conversations,” Wolf said in Philadelphia on Wednesday. “I’m disappointed that there are people in his caucus who want to rest where we are.”

Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek and reporter Stephen Caruso contributed to this story. 

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.