FILE - PA Jerry Oleksiak 2-14-2019

Jerry Oleksiak, secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Labor & Industry, testifies Feb. 14, 2019, before the House Appropriations Committee.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to more than double Pennsylvania’s minimum wage in the next five years dominated a recent House Appropriations Committee hearing with Jerry Oleksiak, secretary of the commonwealth’s Department of Labor and Industry.

Oleksiak went before the committee amid a string of budget hearings at the state capitol in recent weeks.

Throughout the two-hour discussion, Oleksiak staunchly defended Wolf’s proposal, which calls for increasing the minimum wage beyond the current federal standard of $7.25 per hour.

Wolf’s proposal calls for first bumping the commonwealth’s minimum wage to $12 per hour before increasing the base to $15 per hour in the next five to six years.

Based on figures from the DLI, an estimated 106,000 Pennsylvania workers are earning minimum wage. Oleksiak said two-thirds of the commonwealth’s workforce earning $7.25 per hour is age 20 or above.

“Increasing the minimum wage helps everyone,” Oleksiak said. “It is the fastest way to get everybody out of poverty.”

Pennsylvania last raised its hourly minimum wage to $7.25 a decade ago to keep pace with the federal standard.

Several lawmakers on the appropriations committee said Wolf’s proposal, at face value, has merit during the Feb. 14 hearing. But a number of Republican legislators took exception to the plan.

Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Camp Hill, said he was concerned the proposed minimum wage increase could lead to unintended consequences, including job losses. Rothman asked Oleksiak directly if the minimum wage increase would result in job losses across Pennsylvania.

“Representative, with all due respect, that is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question,” Oleksiak said in response.

The state's Independent Fiscal Office has projected that an increase of the minimum wage to $12 an hour could lead to the loss of 33,000 jobs in the state, about 3 percent of the state's workforce.

Rep. Maria Donatucci, D-Philadelphia, said she has been concerned about the stagnant state of Pennsylvania’s minimum wage – especially at a time when the cost of living continues to increase.

“These aren’t just teenage jobs,” Donatucci said. “Every session, we talk about raising the minimum wage, yet nothing ever happens.”

From his vantage point, Oleksiak said he believes Pennsylvania has been at a competitive disadvantage in recent years as surrounding states have increased their minimum wages.

Several Republicans questioned if the DLI should divert its resources elsewhere, such as working to bridge the skills gap in specialized areas.

Rep. James Struzzi II, R-Indiana, said he was concerned the increments in Wolf’s proposal were too large and swift for employers to shoulder.

“I really see the minimum wage as a starting point,” Struzzi said. “I want to make sure we are lifting people up and not just giving a handout.”

Throughout the hearing, Oleksiak reiterated a belief a rise in the minimum wage represents the whole, rather than a continent of the workforce.

“It is not about a handout,” Oleksiak said in response to Struzzi’s comment. “It’s about helping people break into the middle class to stay in the middle class with family sustaining jobs.”

Oleksiak said Wolf’s minimum wage increase proposal is one piece in a larger puzzle.

“This is part of an overarching approach that the governor is tying to workforce development,” Oleksiak said.