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Minimum Wage Debate Taking Shape in Pennsylvania Senate

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(The Center Square) – Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Pittsburgh, said Tuesday his caucus can’t accept a Republican proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour.

“We don’t believe it’s the right number, and we believe it needs to be higher, and we think it’s something we need to push for,” he said during a news conference with reporters. “My hope is that we can have a discussion about a higher rate.”

The proposal in question came from Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, who earlier this month unveiled his plan to raise the rate for the first time in 12 years from its current $7.25 to $10. Future raises would correlate with inflation, he said, shielding employers from the financial shock of a sudden spike.

Douglas Gross/Senate Republicans

It’s the first signal from Republicans this session of any willingness to raise the rate as many GOP lawmakers have been publicly critical of any policy that increases costs for employers amid the economic strain of the pandemic.

A February report from the Congressional Budget Office concluded that a $15 minimum wage could eliminate 1.4 million jobs across the country. 

But Costa said Tuesday that Senate Democrats stand firm behind Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to raise the rate to $12 immediately, with a seven year phase-in to $15. Department of Labor and Industry acting Secretary Jennifer Berrier said the state’s current minimum wage is “simply unacceptable.”

“Over the past decade, prices for housing, food and essentials have increased significantly while the minimum wage earned by Pennsylvanians has remained stagnant,” she said. ”Moreover, many employees in the service industry make a lower tipped wage of only $2.83. Hardworking Pennsylvanians deserve better. We need a $15 minimum wage, and we need to eliminate the tipped wage and provide one fair wage to all workers.” 

The Wolf administration said their plan raises incomes for 1.1 million residents and gives them $4.4 billion extra to spend, injecting $116 million into the state economy. That figure will nearly triple to $321 million in 2027 once the rate reaches $15, the administration said.

“As it turns out when you give lower wage workers a little bit more money, they have to spend it,” said Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Pittsburgh.

Senate Republicans struck a compromise with Wolf and Democrats in 2019 to raise the wage to $9.50 by 2022, but the measure lacked support from the House’s GOP majority. 

Costa, who’s served at minority leader since 2011, said Tuesday that the compromise wasn’t what he wanted, despite ultimately supporting it.

“The fact is, every state around Pennsylvania has a much higher minimum wage than Pennsylvania,” he said. “It was hard for us not to support an increase of that magnitude … but [now] it needs to be at least $12 and build it to $15 with the cost-of-living indicator as well.”

Laughlin’s bill, which also includes a provision raising the wage for tipped workers from $2.53 to $5, comes with the support of Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh. 

“He obviously carries a lot of weight in the [Republican] caucus,” Laughlin told The Center Square in a March 17 interview. “We have a legitimate shot at getting this done and getting this through the House, too.” 

The Center Square reached out to Browne’s office for comment on Tuesday, but did not receive an immediate response. 

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