President's call to raise minimum wage felt by Pittsburgh residents

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President Barack Obama was clear in the State of the Union address on Tuesday that he would like to see the minimum wage raised to $10.10 an hour.

Tieara McIntosh would like to see the same thing.

The Northview Heights resident, who turns 22 on Friday, works full time at a McDonald's restaurant. She started working there three years ago and now makes $7.50 an hour after receiving a raise.

"Today the federal minimum wage is worth about 20 percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here," Mr. Obama said during his speech to Congress. He noted that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Richmond, Calif., have a bill to change that.

"This will help families, it will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It does not involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the county. Say 'Yes.' Give America a raise."

The federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 an hour as it has since July 24, 2009. Though 21 states have set their own higher levels, none are as high as $10 an hour. The highest is in Washington state where the $9.32-an-hour rate is tied to the consumer price index.

Last year in the State of the Union address, Mr. Obama called for rasing the minimum wage to $9 an hour and attaching future increases to the cost of living. Congress took no action on the proposal.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., has opposed minimum wage hikes, saying they hurt small businesses. "Small employers often have to operate under very slim profit margins and will have the hardest time absorbing these higher labor costs. They will have to find more revenues or trim costs to make up the difference," said Randy Johnson, senior vice president of labor, immigration, and employee benefits.

"While raising the minimum wage may help some low-wage workers who retain their jobs, it will lead to less job creation and higher unemployment that falls disproportionately on the weakest segments of society, those with few skills and lower training," he said.

Others see the potential outcome of a minimum wage hike differently.

Doug Hall, director of the Economic Analysis and Research Network at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said many small businesses will see an increase in customers because low-wage workers will have money to spend.

"Low-income folks are living so close to the edge that every dollar you put into their hands goes right back into the local economy," he said.

The Economic Analysis and Research Network has estimated that raising the minimum wage would provide $35 billion to workers nationally and $1.6 billion in Pennsylvania, with added spending by those workers resulting in 85,000 new jobs nationally with 3,800 of them in Pennsylvania.

As the debate swirls, workers like Ms. McIntosh keep doing their jobs.

Ms. McIntosh, who has a 2-year-old son, Elijah, works 40 hours a week Monday through Friday while her son is in the care of his grandmothers. The boy's father is incarcerated. In addition to relying on childcare help from her relatives, Ms. McIntosh gets by because her housing is subsidized, her health care is provided by the state, and she and her son qualify for food stamps.

She did not finish high school, which she admits was a mistake, but said she would expect that by working a full-time job she should be able to afford a place to live. "I don't want to be living in the projects all of my life," she said.

Wednesday afternoon, at the U.S. Steel plant in West Mifflin, Mr. Obama noted, "Women hold the majority of lower-wage jobs."

The president also said, "Americans overwhelmingly agree that nobody who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty."

He said such people should be able to raise their kids and pay the rent.

Ms. McIntosh, who travels an hour each way on the bus to her job, hopes to someday wear a "manager's shirt," which comes with a raise in pay. She said her chances of promotion are low because her childcare is limited to weekdays, so she needs to care for Elijah on the weekends.

"Dealing with the customers, that's not easy," she said. "I would be happy with $10 an hour -- $15 would be better -- but I would appreciate $10."

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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