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The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is well below the historical average.
The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is well below the historical average.

Debating the minimum wage

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New York Democratic lawmakers are pushing a hike to the minimum wage. They're proposing raising it from $7.25 to $8.50 per hour.

Many liberals and labor groups are pushing it as a necessary step, in New York, and at the federal level. But others say, in the long run, a higher minimum wage might be bad for north country businesses and their employees. Julie Grant reports.

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Julie Grant
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New York is one of at least four states currently considering a hike in the minimum wage. Debbie Bice is a counselor at the North Country Housing Council in Canton. 

"I absolutely think that the state should raise the minimum wage. Especially in our area, we’re struggling day to day with the gas prices for one reason, and struggling to keep our homes. One part of what we do is foreclosure prevention. So absolutely the minimum wage should be raised."

But not everyone thinks raising the minimum wage will mean more money in the pockets of low wage workers. Bob Penski is owner of Penski Staffing Solutions for the North Country. His employment agency matches workers with businesses. 

"There are definitely things the state could do to help businesses to help employers do better and pay better wages. I’m not sure the answer is to raise the minimum wage."

Penski says in places like Watertown, businesses have seen increasing sales, and so they can increase payrolls, and even rates of pay. 

But Massena is a different story. It was a manufacturing hub of the North Country, but the workforce was largely wiped out by the loss of Reynolds Metals, and more recently General Motors. Penski says that’s hurt all the businesses around Massena.

"And as a result, it’s a little harder for businesses in those areas to grow and to increase sales, lower costs, raise margins, and therefore be able to pay higher wages."

Penski says raising the minimum wage could encourage some businesses to raise prices, to make up for additional wages. They might reduce the number of hours employees can work, or automate, to reduce the number of employees. Penski says some North Country companies are running on such low margins, they could be forced out of business. 

But most New Yorkers still want to raise the minimum wage. A Quinnipiac Poll released this month shows that voters support the hike 78 to 20 percent. Nearly all Democratic voters in the poll said they supported it.  Republicans approved 53 to 43 percent.

News producer Natasha Haverty found similar support when she talked with workers in retail shops around Canton.

We just heard from Julie Van Duyne, Robin Young, Zach LeManquais, Alice Greenwood, Linda Carpenter, and Donna Smith, in order of appearance.

The New York Assembly plans a series of hearings on the minimum wage next week in Manhattan, Syracuse, and Buffalo. Senate Democrats have scheduled a forum in Albany tomorrow.

Julie Grant, North Country Public Radio.

Natasha Haverty helped produce this story.

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