Minimum Wage Increase Impacting Local People, Businesses

Roughly one in five workers in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties got a raise when the minimum wage increased on Dec. 31.

At the end of 2013, the minimum wage in New York increased from $7.25 to $8 per hour, a 9 percent increase. New York was one of the 13 states which raised its minimum wage in 2014 to exceed the $7.25 federal minimum limit. The last time the federal minimum wage was raised was in 2009.

According to a study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, which used data from 2011, 11,900 workers in Chautauqua County benefited from the wage increase – 20.5 percent of the workforce. In Cattaraugus County, only 19 percent of the workforce was affected.

“I think (wages) should be determined by how good of an employee you have,” said Al Steffens, owner of Chautauqua Comics.

“If you have a good employee, and you don’t want to let him go, you should be paying well above minimum wage,” Steffens continued

Steffens said as far as minimum wage goes, he will not be impacted as much as some small businesses. He said he would try to eat the cost of the increase, but worries about the second minimum wage increase at the end of the year.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is pushing for the minimum wage to reach $9 by the end of 2014 – a full year ahead of schedule – to keep up with the inflation rate. Currently, at the end of 2014, it will raise to $8.75 per hour and at the end of 2015, $9 per hour.

“New York’s hardworking men and women are struggling and they cannot afford to wait two more years for a decent raise,” Silver said. “Poverty is not a fair reward for those who work a full-time job. We must do more to ensure that those who work hard for a living are able to make ends meet. Speeding up the implementation of the higher minimum wage is the right thing to do.”

“There is only so often that a small business can continue to eat that cost before you have to look to increase the price of the product you are selling,” Steffens said. “It’s a vicious cycle. Every time minimum wage goes up, the price of items are going to have to go up.”

He said he understands the minimum wage is not a livable wage, and a lot of small businesses at the moment are afraid to raise their prices, himself included.

“If I raise my price on my products, (customers) are going to have to decide, ‘Well, maybe I can’t get so many comic books this week,’ or ‘Maybe I can’t get so many cards this week,'” Steffens said.

Chautauqua County District 15 Legislator Lisa Vanstrom said she wants to give young people the tools to build a life, and believes if a person works hard, their employer would compensate them.

“I support measures to help small businesses,” Vanstrom said. “I don’t want to do anything to harm them.”

Mark Eckendorf, CEO of the Jamestown YMCA, said nonprofits are experiencing difficulties due to the change.

“We certainly support people getting better wages,” Eckendorf said. “But it does have an effect, especially on us – a not-for-profit.”

The Jamestown YMCA had a $100,000 change in its budget due to the increase in the minimum wage. Matters have been made even more chaotic thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Eckendorf said.

Eckendorf said the YMCA will have to raise its membership rates a little more than he would like to offset the cost.

“If someone is paying minimum wage, and they have to raise the prices, they could have to reduce their workforce if they cannot handle it through the price increase,” said Irene Dobies, director of Small Business Development Center.

Todd Tranum, president and CEO of the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce, said he wants to help make New York a competitive state.

“Our position is to wait until this issue is on the federal level,” Tranum said. “This way there is a more of a level playing field across the states.”