We’ve all heard the saying “actions speak louder than words.” It can be far too easy to forget the effect that our actions -- or inactions -- have on people. The struggle and pain that underpaid workers -- particularly in rural communities – experience trying to support themselves and their families is very real and far too often overlooked.
It’s past time for the legislature to ensure a fair wage for all Pennsylvanians, regardless of where they live. Raising the minimum wage is good for families, reduces costs for public benefits, and strengthens our economy.
Governor Tom Wolf is proposing to raise the minimum wage to $12 per hour on July 1, up to $15 an hour by 2025, boosting incomes for nearly two million workers in Pennsylvania. The proposal to raise the wage has been introduced by Senator Christine M. Tartaglione as Senate Bill 12 and Representative Patty Kim as House Bill 1215 and is supported by 38 Pennsylvania economists and nearly 70 percent of Pennsylvanians, according to recent polls. Similar laws have been passing in states across the country.
Putting more money in the pockets of workers will inject $9.5 billion into local economies and boost consumer spending in their communities. Raising the wage also reduces state costs as 70,000 adults work their way off Medicaid within two years, saving taxpayers more than $150 million.
Pennsylvania’s rock bottom minimum wage hits women the hardest -- 1.2 million (62%) of workers who would get a raise from a $15 minimum wage are women. Finally increasing the wage floor is also a step towards closing the gender pay gap.
There is also a myth that minimum wage earners are mainly teenagers working a part-time job. Key findings from the Keystone Research Center show the Pennsylvania workers who would benefit from a $15 minimum wage: 89 percent are age 20 or older (1.8 million); 37 percent are age 40 or older (754,000 workers); 18 percent are age 55 or older (374,000 workers); and 23 percent work full-time (1.1 million workers).
Workers in rural communities stand to benefit the most under Governor Wolf’s plan to raise the wage to $15 an hour by 2025. The highest overall percentage of workers who would get a raise are in 29 of Pennsylvania’s rural counties: Armstrong; Bedford; Blair; Carbon; Cameron; Centre; Clarion; Clearfield; Clinton; Crawford; Elk; Fayette; Forest; Fulton; Huntingdon; Indiana; Jefferson; Juniata; Lycoming; McKean; Mercer; Mifflin; Montour; Potter; Snyder; Somerset; Union; Venango; and Warren.
In Fayette County, raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 would impact 23,000 workers and result in a total wage increase of $107.7 million.
Pennsylvania’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is tied for lowest in the nation and has remained there for a decade. Since the beginning of 2015, every one of our neighboring states -- Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia -- have had higher minimum wages than Pennsylvania, ranging now from $8.30 to $13 per hour. Currently, 29 states have higher minimum wage rates than Pennsylvania.
A full-time, year-round worker making the current minimum wage earns just $15,080 annually -- that’s less than the federal poverty threshold for a family of two. Pennsylvania’s outdated minimum wage makes it difficult for families to afford basics like food, housing, and transportation.
Each year the wage remains stagnant, workers lose real purchasing power and are unable to buy the same amount of goods and services as the previous year. That has a negative impact on those workers, their families, and the communities in which they live. We must raise the minimum wage to not only lift Pennsylvania families out of poverty, but to also ensure that rural Pennsylvanians can compete and succeed in the global economy.
Pennsylvania is a commonwealth on a comeback. Our big cities are undergoing a resurgence with strong economies and a vibrant quality of life. Whether workers live among skyscrapers or in small towns and rural communities, good jobs that pay a living wage must be a priority.
The governor and I strongly believe that no person who works full-time should live in poverty -- it harms our families and costs more money over the long term. Not having a raise in a decade is unacceptable, and I urge you to join us in calling on legislators to raise the minimum wage. A fair wage ensures people can stay and thrive in rural communities, makes small towns stronger and improves the economy for everyone.
Jerry Oleksiak is the state Department of Labor and Industry secretary.