Barbara Coleman speaks during a Zoom call about the minimum wage on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Coleman earns less than $15 per hour as a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home, a position in which she helps residents shower or bathe, get ready for meals, go out for walks, and do other basic life tasks. (Screenshot) Barbara Coleman
Barbara Coleman speaks during a Zoom call about the minimum wage on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Coleman earns less than $15 per hour as a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home, a position in which she helps residents shower or bathe, get ready for meals, go out for walks, and do other basic life tasks. (Screenshot)

State legislators and members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation are working to garner support for different pieces of legislation that would raise the minimum wage.

SCRANTON — After she clocks in, Barbara Coleman walks along the nursing home hallway and peeks into every room. She brings a smile for each of the residents as they get out of their beds. She asks how they are, and makes sure their mornings are off to a good start. 

The certified nursing assistant loves the morning routine. 

“It’s the best part of the day,” the Scranton resident said. “You’re starting the day off right.”

Coleman, who is 50, but says she’s 49 because we all get a “redo on 2020,” loves the residents she cares for. 

“These people become your second family,” she says.

Her daily work includes helping residents get ready for breakfast and lunch, helping them shower or go for walks, and guiding them through other parts of their day. During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s meant even more since many residents haven’t been able to see their family as often.  

Coleman thinks that work is worth $15 an hour. That’s why she’s part of the fight for raising the minimum wage as part of President Joe Biden’s response to the pandemic. 

She joined several other low-wage workers and US Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and US Reps. Connor Lamb (D-Allegheny) and Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia) this week for a zoom meeting to talk about the importance of the increase.

Who Earns the Minimum Wage?

The minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 per hour, the same as the federal minimum wage.

In Pennsylvania, roughly 1.7 million people earn less than $15 per hour, and 90,700 of them earn the minimum wage or less.

Of the people earning the minimum wage or less, 79% are women and 18% are people of color.

Of the people earning less than $15 per hour, 61% are women and 27% are people of color.

Casey argued that raising the minimum wage would bring 32 million Americans out of poverty, including 97,000 Pennsylvanians.

Lamb compared the issue with his time in the Marines. He talked about the front-line workers near his home who risked their health and their lives for those they cared for.

Military officers, he said, don’t eat until they make sure the people they command have been served. Lamb said the country needs to make sure the people who have been on the front lines get the pay they deserve.

“They’ve earned it,” Evans said.

State Actions to Raise the Minimum Wage

Gov. Tom Wolf has asked the state Legislature to approve a minimum wage increase in each of the six years he’s been in office. And every year, the majority-GOP Legislature has refused.

The closest the state Legislature came to raising the minimum wage was in 2019, when the state Senate approved Senate Bill 79, which would have raised the minimum to $8 an hour, with an additional $0.50 every year until it reached $9.50 per hour. The bill died in the state House Labor and Industry Committee.

State Sen. Christine Tartaglione recently proposed Senate Bill 12, which would raise the wage to $12 an hour this year, and $15 an hour by 2027. It is likely to die as Senate Bill 79 did.

Federal Action to Raise the Minimum Wage

Several participants on the call said the issue shouldn’t be left up to the states. Too many have fallen behind—like Pennsylvania.

Evans pointed out that someone who was born in the year when the state Legislature last voted to raise its minimum wage (2005) can take the test to get a driver’s license this year. 

“Unless there is government action,” said Gabe Morgan, president of the Service Employees International Union for Pennsylvania and Delaware, “people will pay (low-wage workers) as little as they can as long as they can.” 

Biden has pushed for an increase to $15 per hour, but the fight is a tough one. 

Evans said legislation will pass the House of Representatives, where there are enough votes. The Senate is another story.

It’s unlikely that Republicans will join the effort to increase the minimum wage that much. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have pushed for an increase to $11 per hour. 

Even two Senate Democrats—Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona)—are pushing back against the bill.

Advocates hope public opinion will push more support for the bill since they’ve seen how vital these workers are to the economy and the country.

What Minimum-Wage Workers Say

Coleman knows that some retail stores pay $15 an hour. Occasionally, that tempts her.

But she stays at the nursing home. She loves it too much.

She regularly takes on double shifts. She worries that if no one picks up the hours the patients won’t get the care they need and deserve. 

Her work has meaning. 

But she has also missed out on family time. And she’s not alone. She sees coworkers doing the same thing. 

Tammi Richburg, a Temple University security guard who was also on the call, said many minimum-wage workers have to work second and third jobs to make ends meet. 

A raise to $15 would mean a lot—financially and emotionally—to the workers and their families. Especially now.

Morgan said front-line workers “have really held the country together.”

Workers like Coleman, who will start her next shift with a walk down the hallway, looking for a door to knock on and bringing a smile to share.