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Why Pennsylvania's Minimum Wage Is Lower Than All Surrounding States

Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That’s at least $1 per hour less than the six states surrounding the commonwealth.


The state minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009, when a new federal wage level forced the state to increase its minimum from $7.10 an hour.


Ashona Osbourne, 26, knows that all too well. She’s a single mom from Wilkinsburg.


Credit Lucy Perkins / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Ashona Osbourne has worked many minimum wage jobs, and was the Pittsburgh chapter of Fight for Fifteen, an organization advocating for a $15/hour minimum wage.

“I'm literally paycheck to paycheck,” said Osbourne. “All my paychecks for the past three months have been nothing but rent, car repairs and bills.”


Osbourne is an expert in stitching incomes together. She’s had jobs at McDonalds, U-Haul, Wendy’s, the zoo -- always working two or three at a time.


Last September, she got the job she has now, as a childcare worker making $9 an hour.


A few years ago, Osbourne served as president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Fight for Fifteen, a group that advocates for the minimum wage to be pushed to $15 an hour. But that effort hasn’t had much luck in Pennsylvania.


Democratic Governor Tom Wolf proposed a $12 an hour minimum wage. His Republican opponent this fall, Scott Wagner, supports a raise to somewhere between $8.75 and $9.50.

Here’s a breakdown of the minimum wage:   

Credit Lucy Perkins / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Why haven’t wages gone up?

Two of Pennsylvania’s neighbors -- Ohio and New Jersey -- passed minimum wage increases by putting the issue on the ballot.

Mark Price, a labor economist with Keystone Research Center, said minimum wage increases are usually popular with voters.  But that’s not an option in Pennsylvania.


“We don't have the same voter referendum process that other states do, so you have to go through the General Assembly,” Price said.

Other nearby states that passed wage hikes tend to have a Democratic legislature. Pennsylvania doesn’t. Both the House and Senate are held by Republicans, and have been for most of the past quarter-century.

“The chief stumbling block is that the leadership of both chambers, the House and Senate, have to agree with the governor to raise wages,” said Price. “And in the last decade or so they have not been able to come together.”


Republicans in the state legislature say minimum wage is an issue that should be decided at the federal level, and that hikes hurt small business.


Elizabeth Stelle is director of policy analysis at the Commonwealth Foundation. She believes paying employees higher hourly wages would force employers to cut back on hours worked.

“The minimum wage is not a very effective tool for combating poverty,” Stelle said. “I think the people who miss out the most are actually the low-income workers, the very people you're trying to help.”


Stelle points to Seattle, where the minimum wage is $15 an hour, as an example.


One prominent study has shown that minimum-wage workers there were employed at lower rates. But some economists questioned that study, saying Seattle’s economic growth may mean businesses are just paying their workers more. And another study found little to no effect on Seattle’s employment.


That controversy aside, Stelle argues that people don’t have minimum wage jobs for a long time.


“When you look at how long people are collecting minimum wage, it's not very long,” said Stelle.


But Ashona Osbourne says when you’re trying to support yourself and your child, any amount of time on minimum wage is too long.


“No, it's not transitional," she said. "Your job is your job.”

Osbourne has thought about taking another job, since she could use the money. But this is the first time she has just worked at one place instead of juggling multiple jobs. She says it’s nice, it gives her a minute to breathe and spend time with her son.

“All I do is work, and he's eight," she said. "I don't want it to be [that] when he's 10 or 12 and we don't have that childhood that he's supposed to have.”