Minimum wage earners struggle more in Pennsylvania than in neighboring states
Living off of a wage that's near the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour carries a lot of irony.
Low wages force people to live from paycheck to paycheck but also to plan ahead — sometimes months ahead — for things those who earn better wages take for granted, such as buying birthday and Christmas presents, said Samantha Gouldner, 39, of Hunker.
“Every time I try to put a little bit of money aside, there's always something that needs to be bought,” she said.
Living this way means “you have no future,” Gouldner said.
The Army veteran is raising two daughters, ages 2 and 1, and works part time while taking classes at Westmoreland County Community College. She hopes to find a job that pays better than the ones she found after a divorce and a subsequent abusive relationship that left her living at a domestic violence shelter.
Among its neighboring states, Pennsylvania is the only one that relies on the federal minimum wage to set the floor for pay.
In surrounding states, the minimum wage ranges from $8.25 per hour in Delaware to $10.40 in New York. Ohio has a double minimum with $8.30 for most employers but $7.25 for employers grossing less than $300,000 a year.
Gov. Tom Wolf came into office proposing to increase Pennsylvania's minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Four years later, he now proposes $12 an hour. The chances of that happening seem slim.
“Getting minimum wage (legislation) done is going to take support from leadership in both chambers,” said Sarah Galbally, Wolf's secretary of policy and planning. “Minimum wage doesn't seem to be moving in the General Assembly.”
Several business groups including the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry opposed the governor's proposal. They argue that it would force small businesses to reduce employee hours or cut positions and hurt businesses with thin profit margins.
“It's certainly important for policy makers to focus on strategies to help low-income families, but there are simply better ways to address these issues that don't trigger some of the negative consequences we see with this approach,” said Alex Halper, the Chamber's director of government affairs.
By the numbers
In Pennsylvania, about 57 percent of workers are paid an hourly wage; nationally, it's 53 percent, according to an annual report by the state Minimum Wage Advisory Board.
Of Pennsylvania's hourly workers, about 4.1 percent — or 145,400 people — earned the minimum wage or less in 2016. The national rate was 2.7 percent.
State and federal law allow employers to pay less than minimum wage to employees whose wages include tips.
Of Pennsylvanians earning minimum wage or less, 13.1 percent were 25 to 34 years old and another 31.3 percent were 35 to 64 in 2016, according to the report. About 7 percent were single parents, and 9 percent were married with one or more children under 18.
About half of workers earning minimum wage or less lived in families whose annual income was less than $40,000.
Among Pennsylvania workers who made more than minimum wage but less than Wolf's original proposal of $10.10 an hour, the report found:
• About 16.6 percent of those “near” minimum wage were 25 to 34, while another 30.2 percent were 35 to 64.
• About 8 percent were single parents, and 11 percent were married with children.
• About 40 percent lived in families with an annual income of less than $40,000.
The figure Wolf backs is somewhat arbitrary. There's no study suggesting $12 an hour, or about $25,000 a year, is a “living wage” — one that is high enough for a parent to provide food, clothing, shelter, transportation and health care for her children.
Still, it's better than minimum wage, Gouldner said.
“You can't support a family on minimum wage,” she said. “You just can't.”
Being a single parent with two small children makes finding any other work nearly impossible without more education, she said.
“You hit that point where you have to have money for day care to get a job interview, but you have to have a job to pay for day care,” Gouldner said. “I had no way of working.”
She does work study part-time at WCCC for $8.50 an hour and relies on a host of assistance programs to provide for her daughters and help pay for college while she pursues associate degrees in the criminal justice and paralegal fields.
While Wolf proposes $12 an hour, several national groups, including the National Employment Law Project, advocate for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024.
That wouldn't necessarily be a living wage in some areas of the country with higher costs of living, but it would be a good start, staff attorney Laura Huiza said.
“Anyone who works full time in this country should be able to afford the basic necessities on their labor or work alone,” she said.
Those include food, shelter, child care, transportation and some level of health care, she said.
“We feel confident that families anywhere in the United States need a minimum of $15,” Huiza said.
Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1218.