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Minimum wage debated at hearing; Assembly panel weighs pros, cons of hike to $8.50

Marie Malinowski, who makes $140 a week as a dietary aide at a local nursing home, is all for raising New York's minimum wage to $8.50 an hour.

"I have to put food on my table. I have to pay my utility bills. I have to get food and medicine for my cat, who has diabetes," Malinowski said Friday during a state Assembly hearing in Buffalo on the proposal to raise the minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour.

"That's not enough to buy a bus pass. I can barely buy food," she said. "You've got to buy all these essentials. I put my cat first sometimes, so I live on scraps sometimes."

But business representatives warned that the higher minimum wage, overall, would hurt low-wage workers more than it would help, causing employers to compensate by cutting jobs or paring back hours for their lowest-paid workers.

"The negatives far outweigh the positives," said Mark Henry, an Eden farmer and the president of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association.

"It would have a ripple effect up through our entire labor force," said Henry, a fourth-generation Eden farmer who employs about 70 people at its summertime peak, including about 20 earning minimum wage.

"If you raise the cost of labor, you're going to have to cut back. It's going to hurt the first-time workers, the people in high school and college," he said. "We would have to try to raise the prices of our farm produce, which inevitably would be passed along by the stores."

The push to raise New York's minimum wage, which last increased in 2009, began in February with a proposal from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.

The 17 percent increase in the minimum wage would add New York to the list of 18 states that have minimum wages that are higher than the U.S. mandate. The Assembly legislation also would adjust New York's minimum wage every year to keep pace with inflation, beginning in 2014.

The proposal faces a tougher fight in the Republican-controlled state Senate, where Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Center, has described the bill as "a job killer." Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said he supports a higher minimum wage "philosophically" but has not endorsed it.

Supporters of the higher minimum wage said it is needed to give minimum wage workers a more livable wage. A full-time worker earning the minimum wage makes just $15,080 a year, which is about 15 percent below the poverty line for a three-person household. About 4 percent of New York's full-time workers make less than $8 an hour, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, an Albany-based think tank.

"These individuals don't have budgeting problems. They are not lazy," said Myrna F. Young, the chief executive officer of the Everywoman Opportunity Center, which runs five workforce training sites in Western New York.

"The truth is the jobs they qualify for simply don't pay enough," she said. "Raising the minimum wage will help these individuals."

Allison Duwe, the executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice, a Buffalo advocacy group, said the minimum wage affects far more than teenagers. More than four of every five minimum wage workers in New York are at least 20-years-old, and almost half work a minimum of 35 hours a week, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.

"These workers are not middle-income teenagers working so they can buy more clothes," Duwe said.

Richard Lipsitz, the president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, said the higher minimum wage would spur the economy because the extra pay would be spent, generating additional sales at local stores and businesses.

"The poor people -- the people who need wage increases -- spend every penny that comes in. It spurs the economy," he said.

But A.J. Wright, the government affairs manager for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said the higher minimum wage would only make New York's business climate, which already is viewed as one of the least friendly in the country, even worse.

An increase in the minimum wage would boost payroll costs, while reducing the employment opportunities for the less skilled and entry level workers. "It will have the opposite effect you're trying to achieve, as businesses can't tolerate the increase in costs."

While 18 other states currently have minimum wages that are higher than the national rate of $7.25 an hour, Henry said an increase in New York's minimum wage would put local businesses at a competitive disadvantage with firms in Ohio and Pennsylvania, which follow the federal mandate.

"We need everyone to be on the same federal minimum wage," he said. "That way, it's a level playing field."

Supporters of the higher minimum wage outnumbered opponents at Friday's hearing by a margin of more than three-to-one, with the pro-increase speakers monopolizing the beginning of the hearing while critics waited their turn to speak.

"This is just a dog-and-pony show," complained William DeLuca, the owner of Mr. Bill's Restaurant and Bar in Cheektowaga.