Karen DeWitt, ALBANY
Democrats in the State Senate held a forum promoting a hike in the state’s minimum wage, while a conservative group says there’s already a government program in place that boosts the earnings of low wage workers well above the current minimum standard.
Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson is stepping up pressure for the legislature and the governor to act to increase the state’s minimum wage form the current $7.25 an hour to $8.50 an hour. The Senator speaking after a public forum, where backers of the minimum wage increase testified, says he views it as a moral issue.
“Politics should not play into this at all,” said Sampson. “This is about doing the right thing for people.”
But the conservative think tank the Empire Center says the vast majority of minimum wage earners in New York State are actually making the equivalent of over $10 dollars an hour, because they are taking advantage of the state and federal earned income tax credit. Russell Sykes, with the Empire Center, says IRS numbers show 75% to 80% of minimum wage workers who are eligible for the tax credit actually do receive it. Sykes says it’s an “effective tool” and he’s surprised that lawmakers don’t take more credit for the program.
“It has an enormous effect on poverty,” says Sykes who says the tax credit lifted more than six million people nationwide out of poverty.
“It has a much better anti poverty effect than the minimum wage does,” Sykes said.
Catholic Bishop Howard Hubbard, of Albany, who testified at the forum, says the Earned Income Tax Credit is a great help to the working poor, but it’s not enough. He says the lines at his cathedral’s food pantry are getting longer, and the church has opened a new soup kitchen.
“People want to work, they want to be contributing members of society,” Bishop Hubbard said. “But they just can’t make it on the wages that are being paid today.”
The biggest obstacle to passage in the Senate is the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, as well as many of the members of Skelos’ GOP conference.
“My position hasn’t changed,” said Skelos, after giving a speech to the small business group, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which opposes a minimum wage increase.
“It’s a job killer,” Skelos said.
The Senator says the state is “still in very difficult economic times”, and an increase would be too costly to small businesses. He says a hike in the minimum age puts pressure on employers to pay even higher wage workers more money, and could adversely affect teenagers, who might not get hired if the minimum wage is increased.
The leader of the majority party Democrats in the Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, was the first to propose the minimum wage increase back in January. Silver disagrees with Senator Skelos, and says the increase would actually help businesses, because it would put more money from workers immediately into the local economy, and serve as an “instant economic stimulus”.
“It will not go into savings accounts, it will not go into Wall Street,” said Silver, who says instead the money will be spent at “mom and pop” stores.
“It will go into the cleaners, the baker and the candlestick maker in the neighborhood,” Silver said.
Governor Cuomo, speaking in Syracuse early in April , said he’s supported minimum wage increases in the past, but realizes that some worry the economy could be hurt by it. Cuomo did not rule out an increase in the state’s minimum wage though, and he said he might try to broker a compromise between supporters and opponents.