Wage coalition builds support
If the low turnout of minimum wage workers supporting the rally to get Pennsylvania’s minimum wage up to $15 is an indicator of interest, then the issue is a ho-hum for the workers of Lehigh Valley. But to be fair, most minimum wage workers were probably hard at work at 11 a.m. Sept. 19. A lot of them were serving lunch to their more highly-paid customers at nearby downtown Allentown restaurants.
Likely they had not heard about the rally, but even had they heard, it’s unlikely they could have afforded to or been allowed to take the time off to attend the gathering. The rally was hosted by Raise the Wage Pa., a part of Clear Coalition, a “coalition for labor engagement and accountable revenues” according to information handed out to the small group of reporters, community action workers, politicians and union representatives present in front of the Lehigh County Government bbuilding at Seventh Street and Hamilton Boulevard.
Regardless, the participating speakers and placard holders did their best to make a case for getting Pennsylvania in line with neighboring states of West Virginia and New Jersey.
John Meyerson of Clear Coalition argued, “An increase in the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour would boost the wages of 62,274 of the [Lehigh County’s] work force.” That would amount to over a third of the county’s workers--37.2 percent.
Meyerson calculates that would put an additional $265 million in Lehigh County’s wage earners pockets.
Northampton County’s 52,796 low wage workers would be getting a $220 million increase in wages if their employers got on board with the idea of paying them a minimum wage of $15 per hour.
Pennsylvania’s minimum wage now is $7.25 per hour, according to Meyerson. He said it hasn’t been raised in 11 years. Workers continue to lose ground because the wage is higher in bordering states.
Meyerson said there is a now a proposal in the state legislature to raise the wage to $15 per hour by 2024 – almost six years from now. The proposal calls for the wage increase to be phased in over those years. It calls for an immediate hike to $12 per hour with phased increases to $15. After that, pay raises would be “tied to the consumer price index.”
All of the speakers supported the proposed wage hike.
The Rev. Dr. Larry D. Pickens exhorted the small group of onlookers to act together to get the Pa. bill passed. Pickens is the Ecumenical Director of the Lehigh Conference of Churches based in Allentown.
State Representative Peter Schweyer supported the raise. He underlined his working class credentials by saying he is a “Pennsylvania Dutchie.” He represents center city Allentown and South Allentown.
Schweyer listed some of the things a worker needs to pay for; such necessities as rent, health care, food on the table, child care and transportation.
“Can you do half that on a $7.50 an hour job? Absolutely not!” said Schweyer. ”We are creating a cycle of poverty. Every state around us has raised the minimum wage.”
“We cannot survive on the current the minimum wage,” said speaker Adrienne Standley deputy director of outreach and engagement at Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.
Meyerson also encouraged employers to “eliminate tips and pay the minimum wage.”
“We need one fair wage,” is the lead sentence of one paragraph in the handout that the Raise Wages PA group passed out. Keystoneresearch.com is the source for the document, which makes the case that paying people with tips plus the base wage of $2.85 per hour contributes to poverty and higher reliance on public assistance.
Raise Wages PA, as represented by Meyerson, argues that the current system of paying waitstaff in PA is a “recipe for wage theft.”
“One in 10 minimum wage-eligible workers in the state has been the victim of wage theft by their employer,” according to the information given out by Meyerson.
Vince Dixon, writing in the blog, eatery.com, takes the objection to tipping beyond economics – he sees it in more of a sociological light: “The data is overwhelming: tipping encourages racism, harassment, and exploitation.”
Meyerson’s information had some interesting “frequently asked questions” and answers that clarify their position.
One of those Q and A’s: Doesn’t raising the minimum wage affect mostly teenagers? In Lehigh County 94 percent of the people impacted by a minimum wage increase to $15 are age 20 and older; 48 percent are over the age of 40.
Meyerson said counties and cities are barred by state law from raising minimum wages on their own. For that reason, the state legislature must act for a minimum wage to have any chance of being enacted.
James Irwin, representing the Lehigh Valley AFL-CIO, summed it up: “They suffer. The less money you pay a worker, the less money they spend in the economy.”
“Rise up and fight back,” said Alan Jennings, executive Director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley to the choir – no minimum wage workers appeared to be present in the small group. “Rise up! Let’s fight back!”