2 Philly, PA pols on why they won’t stop trying to raise the minimum wage

A Q&A with Rep. Patty Kim and Councilwoman Helen Gym

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Jared Piper, Jasmine Goldband, Facebook
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The minimum wage in Pennsylvania has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for almost 10 years, and PA workers who make tips have been paid $2.83 an hour since 1998.

Per the Keystone Research Center, had the tipped minimum wage gone up with inflation, it would have been more than $4 an hour in 2013. The regular minimum wage, per Raise the Minimum Wage, a project of The National Employment Law Project, would be about $11 an hour in 2016 with inflation.

But the PA General Assembly hasn’t voted to raise the wage since 2006, and even then they only agreed on reaching $7.15 by 2008. The Commonwealth’s minimum wage automatically went up 10 cents when the federal minimum wage increased in 2010, as directed in the previous legislation.

Some of Pennsylvania’s politicians have spent years arguing against raising the minimum wage. Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin, realizes that, which is why this is the third time she’s introduced legislation for higher wages.

Kim’s proposed bill would set the minimum wage in Pennsylvania to $12 an hour by the beginning of next year and $15 by 2024. The tipped minimum wage would also go up next year to $9 an hour and $12 by 2024.

Kim’s bill also includes cost of living adjustments, so the minimum wage would go up with inflation — avoiding a repeat of this whole process 10 years from now. Here’s a breakdown of her proposed yearly increments.

And if this bill doesn’t pass she’ll just keep reintroducing others.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym has been supporting Kim’s bill while continuing the push for $15 an hour. Last month, Kim and other Philly politicians, like Democratic nominee for District Attorney Larry Krasner and Northwest Philly Rep. Chris Rabb, spoke at a raise the wage rally held at Suburban Station. The rally, organized by 32BJ Service Employees International Union, was one of many in the city this year calling for higher wages. Organizations like 15Now Philly, Fight for 15, and 32BJ SEIU have been advocating for years for the minimum wage to be raised.

Billy Penn talked to Kim and Gym about the fight for wage increases in Philly and across the state.

Why do you keep reintroducing the [PA] bill?

Kim: I think it’s so important to have a fair minimum wage, especially in my district, in the city of Harrisburg. People are working so hard and still not getting by. Helen and I both happen to be from an immigrant family. And [for] my family (I can’t speak for Helen) when you come here to America you work really hard and it’s automatic success because working hard means you’ll do well. Today, with a $7.25 minimum wage you can work as hard as you want and you still can’t pay the bills. It’s so heartbreaking to see my constituents be away from their families to try to make ends meet, and they’re still drowning in debt. I have to keep reintroducing this until we get it passed. I have no other option.

How do you think HB1520 will help Pennsylvanians living in poverty and how many?

Kim: 1.2 million people in PA will benefit from a higher minimum wage, which will in return increase purchasing power. We will most likely see a change in economy because people are automatically buying things instead of saving money for basic necessities. In my time in the House of Representatives I’ve hired six people total. When I put three of them in full-time positions they immediately bought used cars. I think used-car lots should be pushing for a higher minimum wage because all three of them turned around and bought used cars because they needed it.

Once someone is making more, they could start to see extra spending money coming in. But that’s not happening for a lot of people.

Gym: And it’s not just about 1.2 million people who actually directly benefit, it’s that those 1.2 million people are connected to PA families. An overwhelming number of those people are women, many of them are mothers. So this is not just about 1.2 million individuals, it’s about PA families who will see their household incomes rise. There’s no question that on an individual level, a household level and a family level raising the minimum wage is a direct key to improved health and nutrition, stable housing and a robust economy.

But PA has a habit of waiting years to change the minimum wage. The last time was in 2006 and before that it was 1998.

Kim: That’s why in my bill I have a cost of living adjustment. I don’t want to go back every five, 10 years while people are suffering and waiting for employers and corporations to realize, ‘Oh we’re not paying these folks enough, they’re leaving.’ Uh, no, we’re not going to do that anymore, we’re going to raise it according to inflation. State reps, senators — we have cost of living adjustments no matter how crappy we are at our jobs. We still get an automatic pay raise. Let’s make it fair for everybody.

Gym: All these arguments that somehow the minimum wage is a threat to job growth is absolutely contradicted by every other state in the region, which has increased their minimum wages and has seen better job growth. Pennsylvania has refused. We are at the bottom of the barrel in the region in terms of low-payments, low wages for workers and that has not led to robust job growth. In fact, it’s led to the opposite. We need a spark to our economy and some of that can start with not only giving generous tax incentives, which we do in our state, but also making sure that all of our workers are cared for.

While one map we found shows PA’s bordering states all have minimum wages higher than PA, another shows how all those states have lower unemployment. It seems like there’s a correlation.

Gym: I think what the other side will say is that you can’t necessarily say that there’s correlation, but arguments that higher wages suppress growth are certainly contradicted. I don’t see how anyone can sit there and threaten all of that. When in fact what we’re trying to do, and what I think the representative is doing is talking about ways to spark the economy and to spur job growth in our state. This is one component of what that can look like.

Kim: Yeah absolutely, this is not going to be a panacea to poverty, but it is a significant part. We also have to work on health care, education and training our students for jobs that are out there.

A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research stated that Seattle’s raised minimum wage lost employees almost $100 a month. What could PA do to prevent losses like reduced pay, less hours and layoffs?

Kim: A lot of the economists say that if you raise the minimum wage incrementally statewide, not piecemeal throughout the state, there’s very little chance of losing jobs. I know that people are desperate to have $15 an hour right now, but my bill increases the minimum wage in seven years. It should be right now about $10 to $11 an hour, but we’re going to do it slowly and in increments so businesses can adjust. What Seattle did was not the state, but just the city. It doesn’t work that way. It hasn’t been successful that way.

What kind of public activism/pressure/change needs to happen for others in the PA General Assembly who are against this bill change their minds?

Kim: I studied how the minimum wage was passed from the PA General Assembly last time. I spoke to some of the staff members, some of the lobbyists, and they just kept pushing and pushing and pushing until Republicans said, ‘You guys have to stop we’ll pass the minimum wage.’ They had so much pressure, and I think we’re at the tipping point now where my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are realizing that the people want it.

More than half of Pennsylvanians want a higher minimum wage, so keep pushing until they feel the pressure like the Raise the Wage rally Councilwoman Gym was at. Also I’m very proud of Gov. Tom Wolf and my leaders in my caucus. They bring up raising the minimum wage during every conversation, every budget meeting that comes up with the other leaders. I know that they’re pushing hard probably as we speak during the budget negotiations.

What is the opinion of raising the minimum wage in Philly?

Gym: We haven’t done polling, but the campaign to raise the minimum wage has been going on for a decade or more. We certainly have a number of organizations and groups that have testified on multiple occasions within City Council about the need for it. For the lowest-income workers we’re in fact seeing rising income inequality within our own city. Overall, the average median income of Philadelphia is going up, but it’s only going up because the incomes at the very top ($100,000 and up) are increasing dramatically. The ones at the bottom are frozen. For me I think there’s no question that the public is on the side of increasing the minimum wage, and as I’ve said every single other state in our region has increased it. This is not a controversial thing. I think the thing holding it back is Harrisburg leadership, the broader-GOP that’s been blocking it relentlessly. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not making anymore economic sense.

Topics

Minimum wage

People

Helen Gym

Organizations

PA House, City Council

Places

Harrisburg, Philadelphia