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Minimum wage going to $7.15

Mildred Rosado has worked at a Rite Aid on the West Side of Buffalo for the past nine months.

The mother of four lives in the neighborhood and makes $6.75 an hour at her cashier's job.

On Monday, when the minimum wage in New York State increases to $7.15 per hour, the extra 40 cents will come in handy, she said.

"It's great. Keep it coming," she said.

Rosado is one of an estimated 500,000 workers in the state earning less than $7.15, based on a 10-month survey from the state Department of Labor of the current population in 2006. Of those half-million people, 265,000 earned between $6.75 and $7.14 per hour, explained Rob Lillipopp, spokesman for the department. They -- like Rosado -- also will be getting a raise under the new minimum wage.

Workers who receive tips will see their hourly rate increase from $4.35 to $4.60.

Things could get even better for low-wage workers like Rosado if the federal government increases the minimum wage for all Americans. A proposal to raise it from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour is a top priority for the new Democratic-controlled Congress, which convenes on Thursday.

The state increase is the third installment in a series that started in 2005 when the minimum wage was raised from $5.15, where it had been stuck since 1997, to $6. It rose to $6.75 last January.

Local advocates for the poor say the state's wage increase is a good start, but it leaves the wage far below what people actually need to meet their basic needs.

"We definitely see it as a good thing," said Allison Duwe, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice. "But more things need to be done, such as making sure New York State's minimum wage goes up every year. This doesn't go far enough to solve the poverty crisis we see very clearly in Western New York."

The minimum wage is an entry-level wage, and no one should be working at that level as a career, said Robin Johnson and Michael Pierro, small business owners on Connecticut Street. While the state minimum wage increase is good news for some, it can be problematic for them and other small business owners throughout Western New York.

They said the state wage increase makes it harder for them to do business and to retain the employees they have.

"It's good for the people making minimum wage; however, for small business owners who struggle just to keep employees, we can't afford to give them health benefits, let alone all these wages," said Johnson, president of the Connecticut Street Business Association, whose members range from print shops to retail stores. Johnson, the owner of Vilardo Printing, has two employees.

"The bigger operations like Wal-Mart can afford that, but for small businesses like myself, it's very hard," she added. "It's so hard when you're a small business just struggling, then they tell you you have to pay this extra money. It's really hard. It really is."

Pierro, owner of the Mineo & Sapio sausage manufacturing company at 410 Connecticut St., said the main concern for small businesses like his is competing companies in Pennsylvania and Ohio that can capitalize on the dollar advantage.

For example, many small businesses will have to pass the wage increase on to restaurants, supermarkets and other customers. Subsequently, wholesale markets would start looking at companies in other states a little more favorably, said Pierro

"Their transportation costs are offset by our labor costs. The state looks at itself as a monolithic entity, and we're not. We're competing with other states. At least if it's a federal wage increase, then everybody's . . . on an even playing field," said Pierro, whose family-owned business, which has 10 employees, was founded over 80 years ago and has been located on Connecticut Street for the past 22 years.

Another ramification small businesses face under the state's wage increase is an increase in workers compensation because of a higher payroll.

"If your payroll goes up," Pierro said, "your workers compensation premium will be higher."

The state's wage increase comes at a time when the new Congress is dealing with the same issue.

Pressure from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. and incoming speaker of the House of Representatives, and other Democrats resulted recently in the delay of an automatic congressional pay raise of $3,300 from Jan. 1 until Feb. 16. The move gives federal lawmakers time to increase the minimum wage nationwide.

Also, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., has said that increasing the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour is his top priority as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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