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Minimum wage hike proposal sparks local debate

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposal to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.75 an hour has yielded a mixed reception in the north country.

Employers say the wage increase will force them to pass on higher prices to consumers, while their employees say they need the higher pay to combat the high cost of living here.

If the governor and Legislature can agree, the wage will increase July 1.

Patrick J. Kelly, CEO of the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency, said the wage hike is a balancing act.

“Higher wages lead to better standards of living, but there’s a balance between how much local businesses can afford,” Mr. Kelly said. “If the battle to raise the minimum wage were tied to lowering the cost of doing business in New York state, it would be ideal.”

He said he couldn’t comment on whether the proposed hike too high or not high enough.

The increase could also impact farms. St. Lawrence County Farm Bureau President Jon R. Greenwood said the wake hike will hit local farmers who hire young people.

“One of the biggest things is, even though the majority of farms are paying above the minimum wage, it raises the base,” Mr. Greenwood said. “It pushes everything up. For those farms that use kids and are trying to give them an entry level experience, it will probably restrict the amount of hiring that’s done.”

As wages go up the costs have to go somewhere, Mr. Greenwood said.

“If our costs go up high enough, we’ll go out of business,” because farmers won’t be able to pay the higher wages.

The Jreck Subs franchise, which has locations across the north country, now pays entry-level employees minimum wage. To make up for the increased cost of labor if the wage plan is approved, the prices of subs would likely be notched up on menus, said Watertown franchisee Peter J. Whitmore.

“Not only does it raise the minimum wage, but employees that have a higher minimum wage right now would need to be paid more, too. It would be absolutely devastating to us, and I think it absolutely has to be passed on to the customer,” he said.

Mr. Whitmore said he fears if the prices for meals rise too high, people will go somewhere else to eat.

“Labor is our biggest cost of business, second to food,” he said. “Increasing the labor cost is a big problem. There’s no room left for us to cut in other areas.”

Mona Golub, spokeswoman for Price Chopper grocery stores, agreed with Mr. Whitmore.

“When you elevate the pay raise for the least experienced, that causes adjustments at other levels,” Ms. Golub said. “In our business, about a quarter of our work force is under the age of 21.”

But Ms. Golub said the wage hike is just “the cost of doing business” in New York state, and Price Chopper will not be going anywhere.

Hostesses, dish washers and kitchen workers are paid minimum wage at Bob Evans Restaurant, 21050 Arsenal St., Watertown, which has 45 employees. General manager Clarence G. Blanchard said many employees at the restaurant are paid in the $8 range. If the minimum wage is bumped to $8.75, he said, the restaurant will attempt to hire workers who have more experience and skills.

“Wage increases are needed when the cost of living goes up,” he said. But “if you’re going to be hiring at that wage, you’re going to have to find workers with the sharpest skills. And if workers’ skills aren’t sharp, they’re going to have to improve.”

At Bob Evans, the proposed wage increase is music to the ears of 18-year-old Mary C. Cramer, who earns $7.25 per hour as a hostess and $5 per hour, plus tips, as a waitress.

If the wage plan is approved, “I’ll probably be more inclined to pick up more hours as a hostess because of the higher wage,” said Ms. Cramer, a Jefferson Community College student. “That’s a pretty substantial increase.”

Most manufacturers and retailers in Jefferson County now pay workers above $8.75 an hour, but fast-food restaurants and some small businesses are below that threshold, said Cheryl A. Mayforth, director of the WorkPlace employment agency. The higher wage is especially needed in the greater Watertown area, she said, because of the high cost of living.

“This could hurt some employers on the work side, but this is an area in which it’s hard to live and pay rent,” she said. “Employees here will be paid more of a living wage, and that money will be funneled back into the local economy.”

Mr. Greenwood disagreed. He said, “The market works. That’s why most people are paying above minimum wage anyway. If you need to attract labor and keep it, the market works. The higher the wages go the more you’re going to discourage job creation.”

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