Looking to boost minimum wage, Pa. Dems want to end preemption. That’s a heavy lift

By: - January 6, 2021 7:14 am

After a deal to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage — stuck at $7.25 — fell apart last year, some advocates for a statewide pay raise are shifting their approach to win Republican votes.

In fact, their idea — to allow the commonwealth’s cities to approve a wage hike themselves, without the Republican-controlled General Assembly — was the very first bill proposed in Harrisburg this year.

Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia, said being first wasn’t intentional. But the argument he’s making is deliberate, based on a year of debates over the state’s response to COVID-19. 

As Gov. Tom Wolf has taken the reins under state emergency law to direct whole industries to close or people to stay inside, GOP legislators have cried out for local control in reopening decisions. 

Boyle is hoping that he can convince Republicans that they’re right, but on a differing subject of bigger paychecks for, potentially, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania workers.

“It addresses one of the main arguments that opponents in the GOP caucus have, that ‘hey in Philadelphia it might be acceptable to pay someone a living wage of $12 an hour, $15 an hour, but in Jefferson County that would put a small businesses out of businesses,’” Boyle told the Capital-Star. “I don’t agree with that argument … but it addresses those concerns.”

Under the state’s last minimum wage increase, passed in 2006, Pennsylvania municipalities were banned from increasing their own minimum wages.

This is known as preemption, or when the state government prevents local governments from passing certain laws, whether it’s a minimum wage increase or firearm restrictions or offering municipal broadband services

In fact, under Pennsylvania state law, no city but Philadelphia can “determine duties, responsibilities or requirements placed upon businesses, occupations and employers.”

States around the country enact these preemption laws. For example, 28 states preempt higher local minimum wages, according to a 2017 report by the National League of Cities.

Blunted on the state level, some activist groups are instead trying to raise support for wresting power back from state lawmakers, rather than rolling boulders in the Capitol.

“It’s time for our state legislature to stop holding back local governments from using the direct knowledge of their own communities to create family-sustaining wages, provide paid sick days, help people suffering from the opioid crisis access jobs, and so much more,” said Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, executive director of the organizing group Pittsburgh United, in a statement.

Advocates for local control also had a rare win in the summer of 2019, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled to allow a local paid sick leave law to go into effect. 

Pittsburgh can require private employers to provide paid sick leave, Pa. Supreme Court rules

The state’s restaurant lobby challenged the law, but Pittsburgh’s lawyers successfully argued to the liberal-majority court that the local ordinance was covered by an exception in state law for local safety, sanitation or health regulations.

Prior arguments notwithstanding, it’s hard to tell if Republicans will be easier to convince to reduce preemption than just vote for a wage increase themselves. In fact, Republicans have already floated two bills this year to increase preemption. One, introduced in previous years, would ban all local labor ordinances.

This would eliminate Pittsburgh’s recently won paid sick leave, as well as a number of progressive labor laws passed in Philadelphia, such as a law requiring large employers to give workers two weeks advance notice of their schedule.

“Local mandates on private business not only increase cost, but they create an unequal foundation for Pennsylvania’s economy,” wrote Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, in a memo for the proposal.

Another would prevent municipalities from passing local rent-control measures.

Alex Halper, a lobbyist at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, argued against a wage increase, citing studies that show some job losses or hour cuts associated with a wage increase.

A study of a $12 an hour wage in Pennsylvania by the Independent Fiscal office, a nonpartisan legislative research group, found that 1.9 million Pennsylvanians would see a bigger paycheck, while 34,000 would be left jobless. The net increase in incomes would total $3.5 billion.

As for preemption, Halper pointed to a GOP proposal to give local governments the option to suspend prevailing wage  — a law dictating construction worker’s salaries on public projects — to cut costs amid the pandemic.

Efforts to rollback the prevailing wage are usually opposed by the state’s trade unions, who both Republicans and Democrats try to woo. And that bill, which would have given local governments more power, didn’t go anywhere.

As such, Halper said preemption debates are “driven by the policy more than some kind of belief that individual municipalities should have more discretion.”

The state’s current $7.25 matches the federal minimum, set more than a decade ago in 2009. All of Pennsylvania’s neighbors have higher minimum wages.

Wolf, matching a national push by union allies, has made raising the wage to $15 an hour a policy priority. Republican leaders have instead, frequently told him to take a hike — figuratively. 

That stasis broke last November, when the Pennsylvania Senate approved a compromise bill that raised the minimum wage by $2.25 to $9.50 an hour. But the House never took up the deal, and it died in committee.

A $9.50 minimum wage by 2022? The Pa. Senate just passed it. Now it’s up to the House.

Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin, sponsor of the $15 an hour wage bill in the House, has been a vocal advocate for the increase.

Representing one of the commonwealth’s smaller cities, Harrisburg, Kim said she was concerned that just getting rid of preemption would not be as helpful for small municipalities as larger ones.

Businesses leaving Philadelphia over a wage increase wouldn’t hurt the city as a whole, Kim argued. But in Harrisburg, the impact of businesses leaving, taking the jobs and tax revenue with them, could hit harder.

Either way, she supported “attacking in all different directions,” whether it was allowing local governments to raise the wage or raising it all at once.

“With the dynamics of the Legislature, our motto has to be something is better than nothing,” Kim told the Capital-Star.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.