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If Pa. state government won’t help working families, it’s up to Philly and Pittsburgh | Opinion

State preemption laws don't just hurt Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; they hold back all of Pa.

Pennsylvania Capitol building.
Pennsylvania Capitol building.Read moreMATT ROURKE / AP

The state government of Pennsylvania is holding our workers back. Not only are they failing to ensure decent working conditions for families, they are also preventing cities and local governments from taking action.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are two cities driving Pennsylvania's economic engine.  In the southeast, Philadelphia's metropolitan area is home to more than 6 million people, has a thriving economy that includes a vibrant "eds and meds" sector, and hosts the corporate headquarters of national and international conglomerates.  In the west, the Pittsburgh metropolitan area is home to more than 2.3 million people and has a proud history of steel production and manufacturing, along with a burgeoning technology sector supported by dynamic universities and renowned health-care institutions.  Yet, despite the critical role we play in Pennsylvania's economy, the state has repeatedly tried to interfere in our ability to bolster our economic potential.

For more than a decade, a state law prohibiting local governments from raising the minimum wage above the state standard (the lowest in the region) has made it hard for companies to compete for workers who find higher wages in every surrounding state. Philadelphia is the only locality that can pass certain forms of employment law, such as paid sick days or paid family leave.  But even with this legal precedent, the state has repeatedly tried to prevent both municipalities from passing these laws.

Worse yet,  the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is considering a preemption bill — House Bill 861 — that would strip away local protections already implemented for city workers.

These efforts harm our residents and slow down our economy. They are out of touch with the reality of life in our cities.

>> READ MORE: Harrisburg, stay out of Philly's labor laws | Editorial

Local policy makers are best positioned to craft policies that directly address the needs of the constituents we represent.  We live and work here, send our kids to our schools and day cares, shop at local grocery stores, and depend on local doctors and hospitals.  We are the ones who know that when the price at the pump or the cost of milk goes up at the local store, our neighbors struggle to make ends meet. We understand our cities, and we know what's best for our constituents.

In the recently released Best States to Work index, created by anti-poverty organization Oxfam America, this problem is clearly on display.  Oxfam ranked all 50 states and the District of Columbia according to laws regarding wages, worker protections, and the right to organize.  The index specifically measures whether the state allows localities to raise the minimum wage.

Despite its robust union activity and legacy of labor rights, Pennsylvania ranks below our neighbors New Jersey at 13th and Ohio at 20th.  Job growth is slow, and our cities are struggling with the crushing impact of poverty for far too many residents.

A key reason for Pennsylvania's disappointing score is the staggeringly low minimum wage, currently set at the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour, plus the preemption policy that bans cities from raising it.  To put that in perspective, the living wage for an individual in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh is $12.47 and $10.32, respectively.  For a family of two (one adult/one child), the costs jump to $24.90 an hour in Philadelphia and $22.32 per hour in Pittsburgh.

>> READ MORE: Give shift-bound workers a break: predictable schedules | Editorial

Our minimum wage is utterly inadequate for an individual — let alone a family — to have a decent standard of living, and the cost of living differs from locality to locality.

Pennsylvania's existing state preemption law, unfortunately, ties our hands on the minimum wage and ensures that workers in Pittsburgh won't have the same basic rights as workers in Philadelphia.

Despite this, we're working for creative solutions. Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O'Connor introduced and passed a bill that incentivizes small businesses: Those that pay their workers at least $10.10 per hour are allowed to market themselves on city assets.  Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym is championing legislation to provide stable schedules for hourly workers in the low-wage industries of retail, fast food, and hospitality.

>> READ MORE: Fair Workweek first step in better working conditions for Philadelphians | Opinion

Citizens are getting involved, too. In Philadelphia, for example, business and civic leaders launched a campaign called "Wage Change" to encourage other small businesses to raise their minimum wage to $11 by 2020.

Of course, we would love it if our colleagues in the state legislature would take the lead of every surrounding state and bring us to a competitive minimum wage of $15 per hour, as championed by Rep. Patty Kim, Rep. Ed Gainey, Sen. Art Haywood, and others.

Pennsylvania's economy relies on the health and wealth of our cities. Our residents want control over their own destinies, and they need policies that reduce inequality and allow them to flourish economically. Local control is at risk when state legislators try to interfere.

State preemption laws like House Bill 861 don't just hurt Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, they hold back our entire state.  We know all too well that all politics is local. Commonsense public policy should be as well.

Helen Gym is a member of Philadelphia City Council.  Corey O'Connor is a member of Pittsburgh City Council.