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Philly bosses encourage one another to pay more than the minimum

Love doggies?

Want to make a little money walking them over spring break?

Adina Silberstein doesn't want you working for her business, Queenie's Pets.

"There's a really big difference between people's perception of what it means to be a dog walker and what it means to be a professional dog walker," Silberstein said, explaining why she joined Wage Change, a new organization of small Philadelphia businesses committed to paying more than minimum wage.

Full or part time, dog walkers at Queenie's in Mount Airy earn a minimum of $14 or $15 an hour, and can earn more through bonuses. Because Silberstein's business relies on building long-term relationships and trust with the animals and their humans, employee turnover could put Queenie's in the doghouse. Her dog walkers stay an average of three years, she said, because they have financial security.

"If you build your business around the premise of paying well, you can create your pricing around that," she said. "You just charge accordingly."

Wage Change will hold its inaugural meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Trolley Car Café on South Ferry Road, off Kelly Drive, in East Falls. The idea is for business owners to encourage one another to pay above the minimum and to participate in joint marketing promoting their pay philosophies.

"People are shopping their values," particularly in this political climate, said Ben Waxman, executive director of the group.

Nationally, states and cities have been raising their minimum wage, partly in response to activism from fast-food workers. But the economy is doing the heavy lifting here, as unemployment drops and the job market tightens.

"It's pretty tough to find people [willing] to work at minimum wage," said Joel Naroff, chief economist with Naroff Economic Advisors.

"Some of the larger companies have raised their minimum wages," putting pressure on smaller businesses to follow suit, Naroff said, citing Wal-Mart Stores Inc. as an example. "People have alternatives. What you are going to get at minimum wage are going to be people who, for one reason or another, can't find jobs at anything else."

Mount Airy developer Ken Weinstein, who employs about 80 people at the two Trolley Car restaurants he owns, started Wage Change. He said he boosted 15 employees at minimum wage to $8 an hour in January and plans $1 raises annually until the minimum reaches $11 an hour in 2020.

"It has become more and more clear after the election that state and federal government are not going to enact new higher minimum wages across the board. Ours is a voluntary program to encourage small businesses to raise their minimum wage over time," he said.

Wage Change's goal is to build an association of 1,000 businesses reaching 10,000 employees, funded by individuals, foundations, and ultimately the participating businesses, Weinstein said. When employees earn more, they spend more, and they usually spend it locally: "What goes around, comes around," he added.

Critics of government-mandated minimum-wage increases say that employers will simply cut jobs or hours, or automate, in response. "It's counterproductive to create a new wage mandate that puts starter jobs further out of reach," said Michael Saltsman, of Employment Policies Institute, a Washington-based group that writes about the minimum wage.

The national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, last raised in 2009. Pennsylvania's minimum wage is $7.25, Delaware's is $8.25, and New Jersey's is $8.44.

"Just because a higher minimum wage isn't mandated by the government doesn't mean a business can't do what's morally right," said Ivy Kaplin, owner of Lovely Bride, a shop in Old City. She said she pays her staff a minimum of $13 an hour.  "The idea of paying people $8 an hour and asking them to put their hearts into something doesn't seem realistic."

On Monday, Queenie's dog walkers Eric Braggs and Sheila Scanlon met in a Mount Airy backyard at a doggie ball-chasing soiree hosted by Federico, the resident labradoodle, with Silberstein's dog, MeloDrama, visiting. Braggs. 27, of Abington, said he had worked for Wal-Mart, earned less money, and wasn't as happy in his job.

"I never saw the sun," he said. "Everything felt either oppressive or depressing."

Scanlon, 66, of Roxborough, a retired human-resources director, said that in her experience, there is a lot of turnover among minimum-wage workers.

"Usually, people who work minimum wage work pretty hard and don't feel appreciated," she said. "They'll leave for 50 cents an hour and the promise of more."