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State wage gimmick adds to distress

A roadside banner beckons potential employees outside Channel Control Merchants LLC, an extreme value retailer and exporter of brand sensitive secondary market inventories, in Hattiesburg, Miss., March 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

NORTH WARREN, Pa. — There is an obvious disparity for New York businesses that is apparent once you have crossed the state border into Warren County. Help wanted signs practically scream for applicants — much like they do across Chautauqua County.

Here, however, the starting pay at the fast-food restaurants ranges anywhere between $10 to $12 an hour. In Pennsylvania, that is a significant bump. Where we reside, that is still below the current minimum wage.

How different is that threshold for these two nearby communities? Penn-sylvania’s rate has not changed in 15 years and remains at $7.25 per hour. In upstate, it is $12.50, with $13.20 looming on Dec. 31 — a 70-cent increase.

Those yearly hikes in our area have taken a toll on expenses for those in the private sector and the smaller non-profits. But as the rate continues to balloon, it is beginning to impact the public sector — where pay and benefits are already at generous levels.

This week, Gowanda Central Schools had to move to a remote model for learning due to a shortage in its workforce. “We do not at the moment have enough staff in critical areas to operate the school district fully in person,” said Dr. Robert Anderson in a note to the school community on Tuesday.

In Mayville, legislators are starting to look at pay levels for Chautauqua County employees after hearing from the Human Resources Director Jean Riley earlier this month. She noted the county had 82 vacancies, which does not include the new positions that were created in the 2022 budget. “In the environment we’re in with the worker shortage, it’s going to be even more difficult to recruit people for our open positions,” she said.

This certainly does not bode well for the numerous industries, health-care facilities and restaurants in the area already desperate to fill openings. All one has to do is look at municipal and school district payrolls where the larger entities budget for millions of dollars.

According to seethroughny.net, there are 1,234 employees working for the county this year earning a combined total of more than $56 million. Ten of these employees earn more than $100,000 per year while 113 — 9.1% of its work force– receive more than $100,000 in salaries, health care and benefits.

These positions, it must be noted, are paid for through tax dollars that come from the state as well as local property owners. There is no way for-profit institutions who are desperate for labor can compete with these wages.

Officials here can talk workforce development all they want. But there is no denying the problems the increasing minimum wage is placing on every employment sector in this region. At this moment, job openings are the norm — not the exception.

Each year the hourly rate rises, those employees who are above it rightfully want additional compensation. This creates an instability, which is something we are dealing with in the current crisis.

In the meantime, officials in Albany continue to speak as though everything is dandy. Consider this comment from Roberta Reardon, state labor commissioner, in September: “Companies, particularly those that employ low-wage workers, are already raising wages and in some cases offering incentives to hire amid a labor-shortage that is showing no sign of abating, and it makes sense to raise the wage floor now and continue supporting New York’s families while providing a predictable path forward for businesses. With today’s action (of increasing the minimum wage) we are continuing the work of building back with equity and justice.”

Numbers tell a different story. Though the county’s jobless rate continues its decline from 9.6% in January to 4.7% in September, the number participating in the work force — according to the state Labor Department — is estimated at about 100 less today than it was at the beginning of 2021 when numbers were closer to 53,200. Additionally, poverty rates — throughout the minimum wage increase — have been stable at 16% in the county and 25% to 30% in the cities of Dunkirk and Jamestown. The median county household income, the Census notes, is $46,820.

Here are more discrepancies in this model. Neighboring Warren County, which has a minimum wage that is 42% less than New York state, has a higher median household income at $50,250 and its poverty rate is 13.5%, which is 3% less than here at home.

This begs the question: is the continuing minimum wage increase helping or hurting upstate? Those in Albany, who have few worries when it comes to hiring and stabilizing payrolls, need to see a bigger picture.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.

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