WILKES-BARRE — At first, it sounds like a good new, bad news sort of thing.
The good news: According to a new report, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would help 21 percent of the Luzerne County workforce get better pay.
The bad news: One fifth of Luzerne County workers earn below or near the proposed new minimum of $10.10 an hour.
The numbers come from “Living on the Edge: Where Very Low-wage Workers Live in Pennsylvania,” issued by the Keystone Research Center this week. As part of a push to get Harrisburg to consider increasing the minimum, rallies were held around the state Thursday, including one on Wilkes-Barre’s Public Square.
And for those who spoke, the report’s numbers were nothing but bad news.
Gurinderpal Bahl, a native of India who said he came to the United States in 1987 after a five-year wait to work through the immigration process, noted that when he moved from Ohio to Rice Township in 1989 “Pennsylvania had even a little bit extra than the other states’ minimum wage.
“But let’s talk about today, $7.25,” Bahl said. “We should be ashamed.”
Bahl conceded he now makes about $14 an hour as a driver at the Pittston Township TJ Maxx Distribution Center, but said his daughter has entered the workforce at the minimum and “after deductions, it’s five dollars and something.”
Bahl, the president of his union at TJ Maxx, pointed to Canada, where he said the minimum wage is more than $10 and the middle class is more robust because of increased spending power.
Bob Morgan, the district director for U.S. Rep Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, said raising the minimum wage “is not just an issue of what we’d like to see done, this is an actual issue of fairness. This is a quality of life issue.”
Jody Weinreich, a regional board member of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said increasing the minimum wage also would increase revenue for the Social Security system.
“It would raise Americans out of poverty,” Weinreich said. “It would not only save money on public assistance like food stamps, but we will create a stronger generation of retirees in the future.”
Northeast Pennsylvania Area Labor Federation Coordinator Roxanne Pauline said this and nine other rallies around the state were held “because it’s time to put pressure on politicians” for the increase.
An array of handouts she provided included the new report, which used state and federal statistics to estimate that, in 52 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, 21 percent or more of workers would benefit from a boost in the minimum wage.
The Keystone Research Center bills itself online as a “policy development organization” promoting “public dialogue that addresses important economic and civic problems, and proposes new policies to help resolve those problems.”
Critics argue the center is union-based. Ten of 17 board members are affiliated with labor unions.
The report looked at two groups of workers: Those who are currently earning less than $10.10 an hour and thus would be “directly affected” by the increase, and those earning between $10.10 and $11.05 per hour who would be “indirectly affected” by receiving “a raise as employers adjusted pay scales upward to reflect the new minimum wage.”
The report makes brief mention of a chief criticism from those opposing the minimum wage increase: a potential loss of jobs.
“Several decades of careful research on the impact of state‐level minimum wage increases has shown that it is possible to make modest improvements in the purchasing power of the minimum wage without causing job loss among low‐wage workers,” the report says. “National U.S. experience also shows large increases in the minimum wage are perfectly compatible with very low unemployment.”
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated an increase to $10.10 would result in a loss of about 500,000 jobs nationwide, though the CBO report notes there is a two-thirds chance the loss of jobs could range from 200,000 to 1 million.
The Keystone Research Center report cites long-term data it says show “the inflation-adjusted earnings of very low-wage workers have actually fallen by 6 percent since 1979,” even though productivity among American workers has nearly doubled when measured as output per hour.
Living the stats
At the rally, state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, told the small crowd “most of you don’t need to hear the statistics because you’re living it, you’re feeling it. All of your expenses have been going up while we are living in this time of austerity.”
Pashinski took some sharp swipes at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a group that bills itself as non-partisan but that critics contend is heavily supported by corporations in an effort to rewrite laws favorable to their bottom lines.
“It’s a diabolical plan of very, very powerful, wealthy people who said, ‘You know what, we could make a heck of a lot more money if we didn’t pay our employees,’ ” Pashinski said.
Pashinski said the backers of ALEC want to go “back to the early 19th and 20th centuries, when the barons took over.” He cited the days when miners lived in company-owned houses and shopped in company stores.
“Yes, you had a job,” Pashinski said. “But did you have a future?”
The report also cites data on chief executive officer earnings. It notes “since the late 1970s average CEO pay in the United States, adjusted for inflation, has risen $12.6 million, or 876 percent. … In that same year, the sector that relies the most on low‐wage workers, Accommodation and Food Services, CEOs earned 543 times the annual income of the average worker.”
Pashinski said high salaries at the top and big profits belie the arguments against raising the minimum wage.
“You’re not asking for anything that would jeopardize these companies,” he said. “You’re asking for a fair shake.”