The governor says Pennsylvania needs to support workers by raising wages, providing paid sick leave, and setting safety standards in the workplace.
SCRANTON — Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is “embarrassingly low,” Gov. Tom Wolf said this week, and the commonwealth’s economy will worsen if the state Legislature doesn’t do anything to help workers soon.
“It’s gonna be bad for all of us. Pennsylvania’s gonna lose skilled workers, and gonna lose the businesses that depend on those skilled workers,” he said at a news conference in Scranton on Thursday. The governor is traveling the state to tell Pennsylvanians about his Workers Protection Plan, which includes the priorities of an executive order he signed in October.
The governor and local leaders gathered in downtown Scranton, in front of a monument to John Mitchell, a president of the United Mine Workers of America who fought for fair wages and better conditions for coal miners in the Scranton area in the early 1900s.
“It’s very important that we’re in front of this particular statue,” state Sen. Marty Flynn (D-Lackawanna) said. “We should remind ourselves that this Workers Protection Agenda is a fight for workers’ rights that began long ago.”
Wolf is calling on the state Legislature to pass bills to improve conditions for workers in three areas: wages, safety, and paid sick leave.
Paid Sick Leave
Pennsylvania currently does not have a law requiring employers to offer sick leave — paid or unpaid — for employees.
Sens. Vincent Hughes and Katie Muth proposed Senate Bill 13, the “Healthy Employee/Healthy Workplace Act,” which would make employers provide paid sick leave to all employees after they have worked for the employer for 30 days.
Throughout the COVID pandemic, some workers have been forced to take unpaid sick leave to quarantine after they or someone in their household came in contact with the virus.
“Getting sick shouldn’t put anyone’s job or finances in jeopardy, but unfortunately thousands of workers across the commonwealth risk because they can’t take time off for doctor’s visits or can’t afford to miss work due to illnesses,” Hughes said in a news release. “Requiring Pennsylvania companies to provide paid sick leave will go a long way, improving public health by reducing the number of people working while sick.”
SB 13 would require employers to allow workers to take time off for treatment, diagnosis, counseling, or to care for a loved one with current health conditions, who has physical wounds from abuse or sexual violence, or a person suffering a public health or public safety emergency.
Employees would accrue one hour of paid sick leave time for every 30 hours they work and be able to take the time after 90 days on the job.
According to a report by the Society of Human Resource Management, 16 states currently have laws in place requiring employers to offer paid sick time, including Pennsylvania’s neighbors Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.
The Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported 148 fatal occupational injuries in Pennsylvania in 2020, and 4,764 deaths across the country.
Sen. Christine Tartaglione (D-Philadelphia) has proposed Senate Bill 310 to prevent death or injury in the workplace. If passed, The Department of Labor and Industry would conduct a study to eventually apply Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protection to all employees in the commonwealth, rather than only those working in the private sector.
OSHA is a federal agency that conducts health inspections and imposes penalties to keep the workplace safe.
“For more than 50 years, America’s private-sector employees and federal employees have benefitted from the safeguards and the peace of mind provided by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). It is a travesty that Pennsylvania’s public employees don’t have the same protections,” Tartaglione said in a news release. “All workers have the right to a safe and healthy workplace, and they have a right to know they won’t face retribution when they speak out about deficient and dangerous conditions.
Raise the ‘Embarrassingly Low’ Minimum Wage
Pennsylvania’s minimum wage has been set at $7.25 per hour since 2009.
“Yes, there are still people making $7.25 an hour, adults making $7.25,” Wolf said. “You’d have to work two full-time jobs at least to support yourself and your family on $7.25.”
Approximately 1.3% of Pennsylvania’s workforce is earning the minimum wage, and 61% of those workers are women, according to a report by the Minimum Wage Advisory Board. In 2020, it’s estimated that 74,000 employees earned minimum wage or less.
Wolf has asked the majority-GOP state Legislature to raise the minimum wage each year that he’s been in office, and it has refused.
He says raising the minimum wage to at least $12 an hour would add about $100 million in tax revenue to the state’s general fund.
Tartaglione introduced Senate Bill 12, which would increase the state’s minimum wage to $12 at first, and then $0.50 each year after that.
Wolf was a business owner before he became a politician seven years ago.
“You cannot afford to underpay your workers, you can’t afford to treat them poorly, because if you do… they don’t stay. You have turnover, you have retraining, you have customers that aren’t happy because employees aren’t happy,” he said.
The ripple effects of underpaid workers are damaging, and Wolf said the Legislature has been ignoring these issues for way too long.
“It’s a statement that we are consciously making, that we undervalue the role of ordinary workers, and I think that is hurting our economy,” he said. ”It’s hurting every Pennsylvanian.”