Advocates on bus tour push for minimum wage hike

By Jason Whong, Star Gazette

Activists spoke about economic inequality and advocated for an increase in the federal minimum wage in rallies Wednesday outside the offices of U.S. congressional representatives in Corning and Binghamton.

The 11-state “Give America A Raise” bus tour, sponsored by Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Change and supported by other organizations including Citizen Action of New York, wants to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10, as President Barack Obama asked Congress in his State of the Union address in January.

The bus tour made its only two New York stops on Wednesday — Corning and Binghamton. The office of Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, was visited in the morning, and an appearance at Binghamton office of Rep. Richard Hanna, R-Barneveld, was in the afternoon. Both congressmen oppose increasing the federal minimum wage.

“American workers need a raise,” said retired Methodist minister Gary Doupe, of Bainbridge, as the bus was parked outside Binghamton’s Metrocenter, which houses Hanna’s office.

“Our social compact is broken,” Doupe said. “We need to re-establish a covenant of economic mutuality in which the needs of the least powerful become first priority for us all.”

Though New York has a minimum wage of $8 per hour, which is scheduled to increase to $8.75 at the end of this year and to $9 at the end of 2015, protesters said the state minimum is too low.

“You can’t talk minimum wage without talking about poverty,” said Andy Mazzella, of Catholic Charities Steuben County, during the stop in Corning, adding that the state’s minimum wage is not a living wage.

“There’s a growing tendency to disparage the poor and blame them for their own circumstances,” Mazzella said. “The vast majority of people we see at Catholic Charities are struggling because of decisions and circumstances beyond their control.”

Citing calculations by the Council of Economic Advisers, Obama’s supporters say 28 million Americans will see wage increases if Congress raises the federal minimum wage.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in February released an estimate that if the minimum wage increased to $10.10 per hour in the second half of 2016, 16.5 million Americans would earn about $31 billion in additional money, while some Americans would lose their jobs.

In the estimate, the CBO said there was a two-thirds chance that the effect of a minimum-wage increase would range from a very slight decrease in employment to the loss of 1 million jobs. Their “central estimate” is that about 500,000 jobs would be lost.

The people on the tour dispute the estimate.

“We are allowing the rich to starve the poor,” said Becca Forsyth, of Elmira, a mother of three who has worked for minimum wage for most of her life, during the Corning stop. “We need to demand that we can provide for our children without having to worry and choose which necessities we can afford.”

Joe Sempolinski, Reed’s district director, invited the demonstrators inside to warm up.

As he spoke to the protesters, Sempolinski cited the CBO estimate as the reason Reed will oppose a minimum-wage increase across the nation.

“A wage increase may work in one state, but an across-the-board hike would cut half a million jobs,” Reed said in a statement provided to reporters after the tour. “These are jobs we can’t afford to lose.”

After the Binghamton stop, about a half-dozen people went inside the Metrocenter to Hanna’s office, where they spoke with Terre Dennis, Hanna’s regional director.

Renee Gamela, a spokeswoman for Hanna, also said the congressman’s stance has not changed.

“Given New York is increasing its own minimum wage, Rep. Hanna is not inclined to support a federal minimum wage hike,” Gamela said by e-mail. “As always, he’s open to a debate on the topic.”

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