Andrea Grove is no stranger to working for minimum wage.
But when she started Elementary Coffee Co., she wanted things to be different for her employees. She wanted their wages to reflect the value of their work.
So, she took a risk and began paying far above minimum wage.
In a way, you could say that Grove was a trend-setter locally, since the conversation recently has turned to the inadequacy of the statewide and national minimum wages and the efforts to boost both.
Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a $12/hour minimum wage with an annual 50 cent increase until the state’s minimum wage is at $15/hour. On the national level, President Joe Biden has proposed a federal $15/hour pay floor. The current minimum wage in the commonwealth and nationally is $7.25 an hour, both set in 2009.
Several Harrisburg small businesses said that increasing wages is a very complicated decision. Grove said that her choice to pay employees above minimum wage has come with sacrifices.
“Valuing people’s work is one of the first goals of our company,” she said. “But as a company, we often move slower because a lot of our resources are poured back into the team.”
From the beginning, Grove paid employees around $9/hour and since then has increased to the current pay of $12.75 for starting positions and over $14 for manager positions. Manager positions include over half of her staff and all employees can, on average, make up to $17 or $18/hour with tips, she said.
Grove said that she pays herself less than many of her employees.
“I want to be able to offer $20/hour, but there are still restrictions of what we can do,” she said.
Likewise, Dusty James, co-owner of Harrisburg-based Radish & Rye Food Hub, said that they always strive to pay their staff as much as they can. But, he said, there are limits to what a small, specialty grocer can afford, especially as so much of their work is done by hand, in contrast to large companies with more standardization and automation.
“We’re working in a system under which larger, more automated businesses will have an even bigger competitive advantage over smaller, more labor-intensive businesses,” he said.
Some workers, he added, see other advantages to working for a small, locally owned business, such as a welcoming, family-oriented work environment.
“There are people who prefer to work for a small business and then don’t feel like a cog in a wheel,” he said. “That’s worth the tradeoff for them.”
Locally, UPMC Pinnacle is one of the area’s largest employers, and, in fact, they just announced a minimum starting salary of $15/hour. This includes employees at UPMC Pinnacle Harrisburg, as well as many of their other sites on the West Shore, Carlisle, Lititz and Hanover.
According to UPMC Pinnacle, they have 92,000 employees across their facilities, making them the largest non-government employer in Pennsylvania and the first healthcare employer in the state to commit to a $15/hour minimum wage by 2021.
“We review the market each year to ensure that our salary ranges are competitive, and we are committed to rewarding our strong-performing employees with merit increases on an annual basis,” said Philip Guarneschelli, president of UPMC Pinnacle, in a statement.
With benefits, UPMC employees making $15/hour can earn the equivalent of $24.97/hour, according to the health care company.
At an annual Legislator’s Forum in January hosted by the Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC, local PA General Assembly members discussed the effects of a minimum wage increase.
Rep. Patty Kim (D-103) has been an advocate of raising the pay floor for years. In fact, in 2019 she met with Grove at the Broad Street Market to discuss their initiative in paying above minimum wage.
At the forum, she plugged her bill that would raise the minimum wage in the state by 50 cents each year until reaching $15/hour, similar to Wolf’s proposal.
But some Republican members of the General Assembly weren’t convinced by her argument, saying it would be too hard on small businesses and that social services wouldn’t be able to keep up with the change.
As a small business owner, Grove understands the hesitation.
“I’ve never met an employer who doesn’t want to pay their workers well,” she said. “It’s just hard. Everything costs a lot.”
According to the Associated Press, a federal minimum wage hike now seems unlikely to pass as part of Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill. Similarly, Wolf’s minimum wage proposal has not passed.
For her part, Grove said that she supports an incremental increase to the minimum wage, but that she may have to raise the prices of her products in order to make it work.
“It’s necessary (to raise minimum wage), but it’s going to be extremely hurtful, including for us,” Grove said.
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