For years, state Rep. Patty Kim’s constituents would urge her to do something about raising Pennsylvania’s minimum wage.
They would tell her about being unable to pay their bills, about refrigerators with little food, about the days and nights eaten up by overwork when they wanted to be with their families.
“When I started as a state rep, one in four was living in poverty, and I saw up close what that looked like for people who are trying to make ends meet, play by the rules, follow the law, and they just still kept coming out in the red,” said Kim, a Democrat who represents parts of Cumberland and Dauphin counties.
“I remember having a housekeeper, a hotel housekeeper, wrote to me and said, ‘Patty, I want you to help raise the minimum wage so that I can just go from three jobs to one and spend more time with my kids,” Kim continued.
Kim says it’s these stories that have fueled her attempts to raise the state’s minimum wage, beginning when she first took office in 2013. However, Republican leadership in control of the state House and Senate would not pass legislation to raise the minimum wage over much of the next 10 years, including bills introduced by a string of Democratic lawmakers and by legislators in their own party.
Now, a little more than 17 years after Pennsylvania lawmakers last raised the commonwealth’s minimum wage to $7.15 in 2006 — an increase that was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell — the state’s minimum wage remains at the federal minimum wage of $7.25, which was enacted in 2009 and has stagnated since then.
In Pennsylvania, that has translated to 63,600 residents earning minimum wage or less in 2022, according to a March 2023 report from the state Department of Labor and Industry’s Minimum Wage Advisory Board. Residents in the commonwealth are having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet if they’re earning minimum wage, lawmakers and advocates say.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “living wage calculator” estimates that a Pennsylvania resident with no children needs to earn at least $16.41 an hour to make a livable wage — and that number goes up to $34.45 an hour for an adult with a child. The MIT calculator, meanwhile, calls $6.53 an hour a poverty wage for someone with no children, while $8.80 an hour is a poverty wage for an individual with one child.
Minimum wage paychecks are leaving residents unable to pay for food and rent, advocates say. Low-wage earners are forgoing needed medicine because they can’t afford it; they’re not purchasing shoes — even when theirs have holes in them — because they need that money for their children, said Nadia Hewka, a staff attorney with the Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services and a member of the state’s Minimum Wage Advisory Board.
“I think that people now have to work so hard just to meet their basic needs, to make the rent, whether they’re working two jobs or working overtime to be able to bring home enough,” Hewka said. “If they’re making less than $9 or $10 an hour, that they don’t have time for their families or time, let’s say, to go to school and improve your situation in life, or to get involved in the community, volunteer at your kids’ school, whatever it is that you want to be doing. My clients who are making really low pay are just running themselves ragged.”
“Public assistance does not fill in all the gaps for people,” Hewka added. “I think there’s a misconception out there. And why should we all be subsidizing low-paying employers in the first place?”
It doesn’t have to be this way, lawmakers and advocates say. Last year, Democrats took control of the Pennsylvania House for the first time since 2010 and in June passed House Bill 1500, minimum wage legislation that was a near carbon copy of a bill introduced in May by Republican Sen. Dan Laughlin. Both bills would have incrementally increased the state’s minimum wage until it reached $15 in 2026.
The idea, Democratic legislators in the House said, was to pass a bill they believed could quickly garner Republican support in the Senate. But the Senate never acted on it.
“Our colleagues in the Senate, our Republican colleagues, have put forth a solution to move the minimum wage with an escalator to $15,” said Democratic Rep. Jason Dawkins, who sponsored House Bill 1500. “They have posted, tweeted, went out on town halls, talking about the importance of minimum wage and the importance of economic stability, but have not had the motivation to actually move this along.”
Now Democratic lawmakers are urging their Republican counterparts in the Senate to act, and some GOP legislators are vowing they will.
“Raising the minimum is on the table for consideration, and I believe we will get it done this year,” Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward said in an emailed statement.
Ward did not say what she wants the minimum wage to be, but Laughlin said $15 provides an important economic baseline for the state. “I certainly wouldn’t call $15 an hour a living wage,” Laughlin continued. “I think it’d be pretty tough for anybody to get by on, but certainly as far as a minimum wage goes, it’s certainly a step in the right direction, in my opinion.”
Laughlin said he has been lobbying his Republican colleagues in the Senate for years to support minimum wage legislation and believes it can pass this session.
“I have explained to my counterparts that eventually we are going to pass a minimum wage, right? I mean, sooner or later we’re going to make this happen,” Laughlin said. “And politically speaking, for the Republicans to let the Democrats take complete credit for this is a mistake.”
Democratic lawmakers who have repeatedly pushed to increase the minimum wage while serving in the minority in the state House and Senate said the idea that Republicans — who for nearly two decades have had the opportunity to pass legislation raising the minimum wage but have not done so — are champions of working families is deeply frustrating.
“[Democratic lawmakers] keep pushing every year, Republicans ignoring us, telling us that pretty much the world’s going to end, businesses are all going to fail and fire their employees,” Kim said. “At the exact same time, the states surrounding us were raising their minimum wage, and that dire situation never happened.”
Nationwide, a total of 30 states have raised their minimum wages above the federal level. Twenty-two states boosted their minimum wage at the beginning of this year, including five of Pennsylvania’s neighbors: Delaware, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Ohio. Both New York and New Jersey have a statewide minimum wage of $15, and Maryland and Delaware will too come January 2025.
Democratic Sen. Vincent Hughes, a longtime champion of increasing the minimum wage, said Pennsylvania’s current minimum wage is harming not only low-wage workers but also the state’s economy as a whole.
“Economically, from a broad state perspective, it certainly doesn’t help individual families that other folks can cross the line and live in any one of these other states and have their income be higher. It’s really sad just generally that we’ve lost so much ground in this space, and it’s time to get this done,” Hughes said.
Raising the minimum wage will, Dawkins said, return dignity to Pennsylvanians now struggling to make ends meet.
“These are the same families that we’re saying we’re here for,” Dawkins said. “Why haven’t we put those actions into place?”