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Workers, employers disagree on higher minimum wage

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By TED BOOKER

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 Watertown area. 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.

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 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, though, 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.”

Hostesses, dish washers and kitchen workers are paid minimum wage at Bob Evans Restaurant, 21050 Arsenal St., 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.”

The General Store, 816 Bradley St., hires most of its employees at minimum wage. Deli manager William K. Cousino, who is paid $8 an hour, has found it challenging to pay for the cost of living in Watertown. The cost of renting apartments here is relatively high compared with other communities, he said, because of high demand for housing from military families at Fort Drum.

“In the short term, this would help with the cost of living,” he said. “With housing here situated so close to Fort Drum, a lot of the housing is hard to afford when you are making minimum wage. I now live in subsidized housing, and you see a lot more roommate situations with people staying together to make it affordable.”

Dairy farmers in the north country would also be affected by the hourly wage increase because many hire youths at minimum wage in the summer when they need extra help, said Philadelphia dairy farmer Michael B. Kiechle, president of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau. Two workers at his farm now make $7.35 and $8.25 an hour, he said, and he plans to hire two more at minimum wage this summer.

Along with the wage increases, he pointed out, employers would also need to pay more for workers’ compensation and Social Security based on the increased wages.

“That money all has to come from somewhere,” Mr. Kiechle said, “and I can’t just magically say the price of my product is going to go up. I have to be able to cut something else, whether it’s the feed bill or electric bill, because I need these workers.”

Douglas W. Shelmidine, owner of a large dairy farm in the town of Ellisburg manned by 17 employees, also hired youths at his farm in the summer.

“I think this wage increase would really challenge us to give opportunities to those who don’t have experience, or even kids,” he said. If you are paying at that wage, “certainly you’re going to want workers who can learn very quickly or are experienced.”

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.”

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