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Wolf nudges Pennsylvania employers to raise wages

| Thursday, March 10, 2016, 10:00 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Gov. Tom Wolf meets the staff at Wigle Whiskey in the Strip District on Thursday, March 10, 2016. Wolf applauded Wigle's policy of paying all its workers more than Pennsylvania's minimum wage and urged legislators to pass a minimum wage increase for all Pennsylvania workers.

Gov. Tom Wolf acknowledged that his executive order raising the minimum wage for commonwealth employees to $10.15 an hour won't have much of an effect on Pennsylvania's economy. Instead, he hopes it will get a discussion moving in Harrisburg about increasing hourly wage for all workers.

“I did what I can,” Wolf said. “That is a very modest group, 450 out of, what, 79,000 people who work for the commonwealth? But I'm trying to send a message to say, ‘Pennsylvania, we need to do this.' ”

Wolf made an appearance at Strip District distillery Wigle Whiskey on Thursday alongside Democratic allies to continue his push for a statewide minimum wage increase. But his plan has not gained traction with Republican leaders, who question the timing of his wage hike when the state does not have a complete budget and struggles with structural deficits.

Pennsylvania has had a minimum wage of $7.25 since 2009. Democrats — and some Republicans — have introduced legislation to increase it by varying amounts, and Wolf has included a hike in both of his budget proposals. An increase would bring $60 million in tax revenue to the state, he said, and help businesses save money on training and turnover.

“We have to treat our workers fairly,” Wolf said. “There is a moral issue, but it's also a practical issue. It makes good business sense.”

Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said he believes broad bipartisan support exists for raising the minimum wage, but an “obstructionist mentality” among Republican leadership keeps it from moving forward.

Senate Labor and Industry Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, questioned Wolf's executive order and said spending more money isn't going to fix the state's deficit. Legislation likely would have to go through her committee.

“This comes at a time when important institutions and organizations in our communities are either carrying out or considering layoffs because of state funding cuts resulting from Governor Wolf's vetoes,” she said in a statement. “And there is still no agreement on a pension reform measure most taxpayers and many legislators believe should be the priority.”

Pennsylvania GOP spokesman Paul Engelkemier called Wolf's news conference “a taxpayer-funded political tour.”

Pennsylvania workers without children made up 82 percent of minimum wage earners in 2014, according to a March 2015 study from the Department of Labor and Industry. Eight percent of minimum wage earners were single parents, and 10 percent were married with one or more children. Thirty percent of workers making minimum wage had household incomes of $30,000 or less.

Arguments made in favor of the wage hike spanned economics and ethics. Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, said a higher minimum wage would pull people off taxpayer-funded safety net programs. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said workers ought to be able to afford to live in the communities that are rebounding.

Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, said all people deserve a good living.

“This is about fairness. This is about helping shrink the wage gap,” Fontana said. “This is just simply the right thing to do.”

Melissa Daniels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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