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When the State Legislature reached agreement on a plan to boost the minimum wage, Rakeisha Crawford of Buffalo started thinking about what she could do with an extra $2 an hour.

Crawford, 25, a single mother of two, earns slightly more than the current minimum wage of $5.15 an hour as a retail worker. The proposal to phase in increases through 2007, bringing the minimum to $7.15 an hour, would make her life a lot easier, she said.

"It would help a lot, because as many hours as you work at the minimum, there's never enough to go around," she said. "I've got so many bills -- rent, car insurance, gas, lights, and the kids -- I would really like that increase."

Under the legislation approved last week, minimum-wage pay would bump up to $6 an hour as of Jan. 1, 2005, with a raise to $6.75 in January 2006, and to $7.15 in January 2007. Restaurant workers who currently earn a minimum of $3.30 an hour, plus tips, would see the minimum climb to $4.60 in 2007.

The bill is now before Gov. George E. Pataki, who hasn't said yet whether he'll approve the measure. The governor in the past has said he supports a higher minimum wage, but wishes the federal government would act on it so that New York State doesn't have to.

Adoption of the New York bill would mean fatter paychecks for nearly 39,000 Erie County residents who work for minimum wage.

More fiscal clout

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than three-quarters of those low-wage earners are adults, like Crawford, struggling to feed, clothe and house their families.

The pending raise also would mean more fiscal clout for Caitlin Smith, 17, a part-time employee at Anderson's Frozen Custard on Sheridan Drive in the Town of Tonawanda. Smith, who will be a senior at Kenmore West, is putting money away for car insurance and college. Smith has been at Anderson's for the last three months and just got a raise to $6 an hour. But $7.15 an hour sounds much better.

"Kids need money to afford things for college," said Smith, who works five to six days a week. "So I think it's really good."

Adam Payne agrees with that. Payne, who will be a senior at the Park School in Amherst, is saving up the $5.15 an hour he makes frying bologna sandwiches and onion rings at the Hatch on Buffalo's waterfront for his college fund.

An extra two bucks an hour would make a big difference, he said.

"I'd probably put most of it in the bank," said Payne, 16, a Buffalo resident who plans to go to Georgia Tech or Howard University to study mechanical engineering. "It would help a lot."

Crawford's boss, Chris DelPrince, owner of the Buffalo-based Lifestyle Street Gear clothing store chain, agrees an increase in the minimum wage would be great for many of his employees. But when he views it from the perspective of a small-business owner, he sees nothing but dollar signs.

"It's going to hurt us, no doubt about that," DelPrince said, reciting a list of rising costs his successful business already is battling, everything from the increasing costs of goods to double-digit increases in insurance coverage.

"Our options to offset it are pretty limited -- we can increase the cost of goods, cut our work force and only hire the most experienced employees. All of those will end up hurting somebody," he said.

Businessman opposes it

Keith Anderson, of locally owned Anderson's Frozen Custard, has similar worries. Anderson, who has written to several state lawmakers urging them to vote "no" on the wage hike plan, predicts the cost of higher wages will be passed onto consumers.

"In the fast-food industry, we're so labor-intensive, this is going to force us to raise prices. There's no way we can absorb this kind of increase," Anderson said.

He said if the wage hike measure becomes law, it could force employers to hire only older, experienced workers, leaving teens and those with few skills out of work.

"We hire a lot of 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds, and most of the time we end up teaching them about work in addition to the skills of doing their job. It doesn't make sense for us to pay out $7.15 an hour and teach them how to work," Anderson said.

He estimated that more than half of his current employees are under the age of 18, and that the proposed wage hike would increase his overall payroll costs by about $200,000 a year. The fast-food executive said he would have preferred a two-tier system that would allow lower pay for employees under age 18, with higher wages for older, more experienced workers.

Town of Tonawanda resident Mark Lillis, 17, has worked at Anderson's for a year and a half. He works four days a week and uses his check to pay for car insurance and gas -- expenses that $6 an hour just covers.

For Lillis, a rise in the minimum wage would be most welcome, and he doesn't think it would be more difficult for a minor to get a job at Anderson's if the increase went through.

"I'm not sure they can get anyone else to work here besides kids, because you're serving ice cream and busing tables," Lillis said. "I don't really think an adult would want to do that."

'Domino effect' seen

Bradley Paul, general manager of Six Flags Darien Lake, also faces substantial payroll growth if the wage bill becomes law. He said even though most of his staff earns more than the proposed minimums, it will force the amusement park to redraw its pay scale.

"If the guy who is making $6 now moves up to $7, then the guy who was at $7 wants $10 and so on. It will have a domino effect," Paul said.

Jim Duncan, a Buffalo labor leader and co-chairman of New York's Working Families Party, discounts predictions of job cuts and price increases. He said the actual impact will be increased dignity for those holding jobs at the bottom rung of the pay ladder.

"It's the moral thing to do," Duncan said. "The pay boost will provide dignity, as well as increased economic power to the hard-working people who hold jobs society has put at the lower end of the pay scale."

The pay hike also would benefit the state's economy and taxpayers, according to Maria Whyte, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice. She cited a February 2004 report from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce that found lifting the pay of 200 low-wage workers would result in $475,000 in taxpayer savings.

Increased pay for low-income workers reduces reliance on such programs as food stamps, home heating assistance, Section 8 Housing and subsidized school lunches, according to Whyte.

"I think the bottom line here is that the American Dream is to attain self-sufficiency. It doesn't matter if you're a fiscal conservative or a liberal, it's a common goal," Whyte said.

She noted that reliance on such non-taxpayer funded services as food pantries and soup kitchens also goes down when workers become self-sufficient.

"People feel better about themselves when they can make the transition from welfare to work, but while having a job is important, it's even more empowering to earn a living wage," Whyte said.

News Staff Reporters Dan Zak and Charity Vogel contributed to this article./ e-mail:

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