In the City of Pittsburgh, 59 municipal employees — including refuse workers, school crossing guards and administrative clerks — earn below the $15-per-hour benchmark that labor advocates have been pushing for nationally.
In Allegheny County, 169 full-time government workers still need wage increases to hit that benchmark. They include food-service workers and housekeepers at Kane Community Living Centers, among others.
Both Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald promised increases to $15 per hour for full-time employees, more than double the state’s minimum wage of $7.25. The city expects to complete the increase across the board by the start of 2021. Under contracts in place to date, the county's minimum wage will be $15 per hour by the beginning of next year. In 2018, the city employed about 3,500 full-time workers and the county employed roughly 5,300 workers, with the majority already making above $15 per hour.
But while the minimum wage increase has been lauded, some worker advocates note that it’s only a start and still leaves workers at the bottom of the payscale with financial hurdles.
“$15 is just barely getting you by,” said Paul Kapetanovich, recording secretary at Teamsters Local 249. The union represents several categories of public service employees, including city refuse workers and county legal secretaries. In his view, $20 would be a better starting point for a minimum hourly wage.
Kevin Schmitt, president of Local 249, explained that minimum wage never kept up with inflation. The increase is “going in the right direction,” he said, but “at $15 an hour, you’re probably not buying a house, a car, providing that well for your family.”
Peduto and Fitzgerald have pushed beyond many private employers in the region. In the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area, major occupational groups such as healthcare support and food preparation have median wages below $15 per hour, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers from 2017.
In his 2015 announcement of the wage increase, Peduto noted that too many workers locally and across the country don’t make enough to “be part of the American Dream.”
And in 2017, Peduto introduced a bill that would require the city to contract only with companies who pay a minimum of $15 per hour. Both UPMC and Allegheny Health Network — two of the region’s largest employers — are also planning to raise minimum pay to $15 per hour by 2021.
Though some advocates want more, Janet Manuel, Pittsburgh’s director of human resources and civil service, said the city does not plan to raise its minimum wage above $15. Amie Downs, director of communications for Allegheny County, said the county is also set at $15.
A living wage for Pittsburghers
How did local officials settle on $15 as a good benchmark for fair pay?
When Peduto announced the increase in 2015, the “Fight for Fifteen” movement to increase the minimum wage had gained widespread recognition. Some cities, including Seattle and Los Angeles, had already gone further, pledging to raise their minimum wage to $15 for hourly work within city limits.
In an email to PublicSource, City of Pittsburgh Deputy Budget Director Kevin Pawlos said the city’s increases were scaled over five years to “ease the financial impact of the ordinance.”
The city estimated that its first year of increases would cost $150,000. Pawlos estimates the last increases to $15 by 2021 will only cost the city $31,000 over the next two years. Pawlos also mentioned that the increases were spread out due to the city’s Act 47 classification as a financially distressed municipality. The city left Act 47 in February 2018.
When Peduto began city worker wage increases in 2016, about 300 of the city's 3,100 workers made fewer than $15 per hour. Entry-level garbage truck drivers earned the lowest wages, at $11 per hour. Peduto’s plan scaled wage increases over a period of five years, reaching a minimum of $12.50 in 2017 and $13.75 at the start of 2019.
In Fitzgerald’s 2016 announcement, the county executive applauded Peduto’s initiative, saying the county was joining Pittsburgh’s commitment “to ensure that our full-time county employees receive the wages that they deserve for the betterment of their families.”
Economic research gives varying calculations for a living wage in Allegheny County.
According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, the living wage is $15.35 per hour for a household in the county with two working adults and two children. According to the calculator, each adult must make about $31,900 annually to afford typical expenses such as housing and transportation.
But a 2018 analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that Allegheny County residents need to earn at least $17 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
Jeff Shook, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who is conducting a study of low-wage workers in the region, said $15 is a “useful guidepost” but does not guarantee financial stability. In calculating what wage is actually livable, Shook said, “we have to look at aspects of well-being, not just meeting basic needs.”
Shook has surveyed hundreds of private sector low-wage workers in Pittsburgh as part of the University of Pittsburgh’s “Pittsburgh Wage Study.” According to his findings, Shook explained that small increases in wage can decrease hardship but workers are still vulnerable in emergencies, struggling with loans or unable to afford health care.
Shook emphasized that the financial burden of low wages is increased the longer someone is earning at that level. “When you’re looking at someone who has raised a couple kids, who has worked for low wages for the majority of their life, is in the mid-40s, 50s, is starting to have health issues, $15, $16, $17, $18 still isn’t enough for them.”
Many city and county jobs that earn below or near $15 per hour are physically demanding — whether landscaping, serving food or caring for elderly patients.
Shook sees a “problematic” disconnect between the demands of these positions and their compensation rates.
“They are really hard, grueling jobs,” he said. “You are on your feet moving all day long — it takes a toll on you.”
Wages aren’t the whole story
But an hourly wage isn’t everything, particularly in the public sector, where workers are drawn to job security and benefits.
“Someone’s hourly rate is just one aspect of what they make,” said Manuel, mentioning benefits, tuition reimbursement, vacation time and opportunities for advancement as important elements of the entire compensation package. Manuel also noted that collective bargaining with unions sets pay for many city positions, including for employees earning below $15 an hour.
Downs also noted that union contracts set wages and that the county’s wage calculation does not reflect benefits provided to public sector employees.
Rich Caponi represents workers at the state, county and municipal levels as director of AFSCME’s Western Pennsylvania Public Employees Council 84. He, too, pointed out the value of the benefits in addition to salary.
“Public sector, there is less money, but we have to provide some sense of stability and opportunities for career.” He said public employees have “types of benefits that the private sector doesn’t have access to,” such as pensions, sick leave and overtime.
Of a $15 minimum wage, Caponi said, “Obviously they would like to make more, but it is more stable than the current minimum rate.”
Notably, Gov. Tom Wolf also championed an increase in minimum wage for state employees, last year initiating a stepped increase to $15 per hour by 2025.
The City of Pittsburgh is studying its compensation for employees, including benefits and opportunities for advancement.
In 2017, the city announced its Classification and Compensation Study — a review that looked at compensation rates for 100 positions across 12 cities similar to Pittsburgh. “We want to make sure that we are offering a comparable salary for our respective positions,” Manuel said.
Manuel said the positions evaluated were diverse in terms of pay. For instance, clerical workers — who are some of the lowest-paid employees in the city — are included in the study. Manuel said the goal of the compensation study is to eventually expand to cover “all respective positions within the city.” She said the office did not have a timeline for doing that yet.
But for now, Manuel thinks a $15 hourly minimum wage is sufficient, noting that the city has opportunities for workers to advance.
“Looking at $15 per hour, is it a comparable amount for anyone to make or be able to have a sustained living? It is possible they could,” Manuel said.“Then there are other needs that individuals may have to increase their skills and knowledge to continue to move onward and upward to higher paying positions.”
Erin West was an editorial intern for PublicSource. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Harinee Suthakar.