Top Pa. labor leader expresses disappointment with proposed Wolf minimum wage deal

An SEIU activist rallies for a $15/hr. minimum wage, which was one of the policies that F&M researchers polled in their most recent public opinion survey. (Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr Commons)

One of the state’s top labor leaders said Friday that Gov. Tom Wolf was tentatively moving to gradually increase Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by June 2021.

Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO which represents 700,000 union workers, told the Capital-Star that he had reviewed draft language that would increase the wage by $2.25 from the current minimum wage of $7.25.

The language would also prevent the state from taking action on a proposed rule to expand overtime to low level managers for the next two years, until the eve of the next gubernatorial election.

“There’s a lot of people struggling to live on eight bucks an hour, nine bucks an hour,” Bloomingdale said of the proposal, and he recognized the hard position Wolf — working with a Republican-controlled General Assembly — was in.

But, Bloomingdale said, he was still disappointed with the outcome, thinking that ditching the controversial overtime rule would have earned Wolf a better bargain — such as letting the state’s big, costly cities like Philadelphia push for an even higher minimum wage.

The proposed deal — a $9.50 wage in exchange for holding off on a controversial new regulation — comes after months of legislative stalemate. Wolf, early in his second term, has made increasing the minimum wage a top priority.

But his opening offer, to increase the wage to $12 before a gradual hike to $15, was shot down even by GOP leadership in the Pennsylvania Senate, who’ve shown more willingness to work with Wolf.

Pennsylvania’s $7.25 minimum wage, which matches the federal minimum, is lower than all its neighboring states by at least $1.30 as of Jan. 1, 2019 according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

According to two House Democratic sources granted anonymity to speak candidly, Wolf will pitch the compromise, which he’s been crafting with business leaders, as soon as Monday.

Wolf was already supposed to visit the caucus to smooth over tensions from the electoral reform bill he negotiated with Republicans and signed into law in October, the sources added.

The plan would still hinge on legislative buy-in, which has prevented Wolf from accomplishing the key second term priority of increasing the state’s minimum beyond the federal level, where it’s sat since 2009. 

Wolf told reporters Thursday that his administration is continuing to negotiate the specifics of an increase ahead of the potential last week of legislating of 2019.

Tricia Harris, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, added in an email that “we have had discussions with the administration and legislative leadership on a path forward.”

J.J. Abbott, spokesperson for Wolf, declined to comment on ongoing negotiations or to confirm the governor’s upcoming schedule.

That the second term Democratic governor was willing to sign a lower increase then his initial ask was first reported by PennLive.

According to the most recent data compiled by the Independent Fiscal Office, the state’s budget watchdog and research agency, 461,500 full and part time workers would get a pay raise if the minimum wage increased to $10 an hour — the closest bracket they studied to the proposed change. Another 29,500 would lose or not be able to find a job.

The net gain for low wage workers currently making less than $10 an hour would be $1.6 billion in income.

The deal would center on what business leaders get in return, which according to the two House Democratic sources, has recently focused on Wolf not following through on a controversial rule that would let 143,000 new Pennsylvania workers claim overtime benefits.

Wolf wants to expand overtime to 143K Pa. residents. But a commission you’ve never heard of gets the final say

After the proposed overtime rule moved closer to implementation, Pennsylvania Chamber government affairs director Alex Halper told the Capital-Star that the proposal would lead to “unsustainable cost increases and harm to workplace morale as employees are forced to be shifted from guaranteed salaries to hourly clock-in, clock-out positions.”

Wolf has shown a propensity to negotiate with the Republican-controlled Legislature, including hammering out two on-time budgets over the last two years, and an electoral reform package that eliminated straight party voting in exchange for funding for new voting machines and a vote by mail system.

These negotiations, carried out in secret, have drawn Wolf criticism from General Assembly Democrats, especially in the House. 

Such critiques have mostly stayed behind closed doors, but became most public over the October election bill, which some Democrats feared handicapped them in urban voting strongholds like Philadelphia.

However, the bill also garnered bipartisan support and the backing of numerous good government groups, like the League of Women Voters and March on Harrisburg.