Gov. Tom Wolf visited Lancaster city Wednesday morning to repeat his longstanding call to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage, the last state in the region to sit at the federal level of $7.25 an hour, which hasn’t been increased since 2009.
Wolf said he wants to raise the wage immediately to $12 an hour, and increase it by $.50 every year until it reaches $15 an hour in 2027. He touted business support for the move, appearing alongside the owners of two local businesses.
But members of the Lancaster County business community contacted by LNP|LancasterOnline on Wednesday said they don’t support raising the wage, even as they reported they are already paying significantly more to their workers and are struggling to fill open positions.
Steve Sikking, managing partner at Eden Resorts and general partner of Fulton Steamboat Inn, said he doesn’t know a single hospitality business that isn’t struggling to find workers. For that, he partially blames the federal government’s $300-a-week supplemental payment to workers collecting unemployment benefits, as well as concerns many workers have about returning to full-time work while COVID-19 vaccination goals are still being met.
To try to attract talent, he said Eden Resorts has added multiple employee incentives, such as a $500 bonus for line cooks or increased hourly wages plus tips for servers. At the start of the summer season, Eden Resorts usually has 350 employees, Sikking said. This year, the company started with 120 employees.
Raising the minimum wage would not make any impact on his resort and hotel, Sikking said.
“A lot of people have talked about the fact that the minimum wage hasn’t gone up in a long time,” Sikking said. “I don’t know if we ever even look at the minimum wage ourselves. We look at what’s necessary to get the right personality in to fill our needs.”
The Lancaster Chamber opposes the government mandating a minimum wage, especially a federal minimum wage, which the Biden administration has made a priority to increase to $15.
“It isn’t as simple as ‘this amount’ or ‘that amount,’” said Tom Baldrige, president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber. “It’s much more complicated, and best solved by the market and in conversation between the employer and employee.”
Baldrige said he doesn’t know of any Lancaster County businesses that pay minimum wage. Even most low-skill, summer jobs filled by students are paying above minimum wage, he said.
Many local franchises and corporations have raised their wages well above Wolf’s proposed $12 an hour. For example, Sheetz has a starting wage of $15.50 per hour and will pay an additional $1 per hour through September 23, according to a job listing for its Old Philadelphia Pike location.
Like Sikking, Mark Sauder, owner of Sauder’s Eggs, said raising the minimum wage would not affect his business since his starting wage is already $14 an hour. But he said he disagrees with the whole notion of a government-mandated minimum wage because it creates an outside influence that “doesn't allow capitalism to work the way it’s supposed to work.”
Sauder said he is operating with 60% to 75% of the necessary workforce on any given shift, requiring managers to fill in to keep the operation running. He’s offering a $750 signing bonus to new employees, a $1.80 per hour attendance incentive, and offers an additional $0.75 per hour to employees willing to learn a different position’s responsibilities.
“The chickens don’t care there’s no one there to put the eggs in a box,” Sauder said. “This is putting a lot of stress on my good, long-term employees… This is absolutely the worst labor environment I’ve seen in my business career.”
Sikking and Sauder said the state government should focus instead on encouraging workers collecting unemployment to reenter the job market.
“I really think we need to be training people to find better paying jobs, teaching people to do things that society needs rather than focus on minimum wage,” Sauder said. “It’s a great headline, but it does nothing for the general consumer and general population.”
Some business support
Wolf held his press conference outside Two Dudes Painting Co. in Lancaster city, a company chartered as a B Corporation, a voluntary movement by some business leaders who commit their enterprises to balancing profits with a commitment to fair wages and a range of social and environmental practices.
Peter Barber, the president and CEO of Two Dudes Painting Co., said providing “livable wages” to his workers is a crucial part of recruitment and retention, and as a result the company is not struggling to fill open positions.
Two Dudes employs more than 65 people, with a starting wage of $14 per hour that automatically increases to $15 after a 90-day training period, he said. The company also offers health insurance and other benefits to employees.
“Fair pay and benefits have been central to our success,” Barber said. “Our turnover is low, which saves considerable money and time by keeping the employees we’ve worked hard to train, and they do better quality work with fewer costly errors.”
Jennie Groff, CEO of Stroopies Inc., echoed this sentiment in her remarks at the press conference, adding that her business’ success and upcoming expansion to a new distribution center are the result of its commitment to caring for employees.
Stroopies Inc., and its storefront Lancaster Sweet Shoppe, start employees at $12 an hour. The company employs multiple refugee women for the operation making 10,000 stroopwaffles per week, and just recently hired five additional refugee women to work there.
“Our experience as a small company demonstrates that paying livable wages is not only doable, it is good for business,” Groff added.
Will Legislature act?
Two Republicans members of the Pennsylvania Senate, including Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh County, told PennLive in March they support raising the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour.
Wolf said at Wednesday’s press conference he hopes that this is finally the time the General Assembly takes action. The Legislature last came close to raising the wage in November 2019, with the Senate passing a bill to raise it to $9.50 an hour. It never got voted on by the House.
Still, workers like Maria Angelica Rojas, who spoke during Wolf’s press conference Wednesday, said she and other frontline workers deserve to make a higher wage, especially after putting their health and the health of their families on the line during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Since I’ve arrived [from Mexico 15 years ago], I’ve worked very hard,” said Rojas, a mushroom industry worker in Kennett Square. “I paid my taxes every year. I’ve worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, many jobs at the same time… I do my work with pride and dignity.”
There were an estimated 74,400 Pennsylvanians who earned $7.25 or less in 2020 of the 6.3 million people eligible for the workforce in the state, according to a March 2021 report from the Department of Labor and Industry’s Minimum Wage Advisory Board. There were an estimated 693,100 Pennsylvania employees who earned slightly above minimum wage -- $7.26 to $12 -- in 2020, according to the report.
Pennsylvania’s 2.4% of workers at or below the minimum wage is higher than the rest of the nation, where only 1.5% of employees make the federal minimum, according to the report. Unmarried, young women and teenagers between ages 16 and 24 were most likely to be making minimum wage or less. This did not vary much among women of any race or education status.