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Minimum wage increase sparks hopes, concerns

Tom Magnarelli/WRVO News

In upstate, the minimum wage is at $9, but will rise to $12.50 by the end of 2020. It is an issue that affects many across upstate, from farmers and small business owners to the workers themselves.

Anthony Emmi is the general manager of Emmi and Sons Farm in Baldwinsville, just outside of Syracuse. Among the crops are tomatoes, squash and peppers.

“I raise about seven acres now, the bell peppers,” Emmi said. “I started cutting back, we were at 72 acres. We used to ship up and down the east coast. Now, New York state is it.”

Emmi said he cannot find reliable domestic workers to plant, pick and pack fruits and vegetables on 200 acres of his land. So for more than 10 years, he has used the federal H-2A program to hire migrant field workers.

But financial concerns have dropped the number of migrant workers he employs from 60 to 16.

“Every year, that H-2A wage increases, like we’re always two to three dollars, usually three dollars, higher than the minimum wage,” Emmi said.

Right now, Emmi pays $11.74 an hour. If upstate’s minimum wage rises as planned to $12.50 by the end of 2020, Emmi said he fears he could be paying more than $15 an hour to migrant workers.

“I’m afraid it’s going to make the only thing I have left to get reliable help unavailable for me,” Emmi said. “It’s going to become so expensive, I won’t be able to use it.”

About 11 miles away in the village of Liverpool, various local and state labor groups rally on a busy corner in support of a $15 minimum wage upstate.

Credit Tom Magnarelli/WRVO News
Rebecca Fuentes of the Workers Center of Central New York.

Rebecca Fuentes of the Workers Center of Central New York said for an industry such as farming, which has been heavily subsidized, wages have not kept up with inflation.

“You’re probably going to find very few employers that agree with raising the minimum wage, but it’s necessary,” Fuentes said. “They shouldn’t be exempt.”

Earlier this year, a Siena College poll found that an overwhelming amount of upstate business leaders are against raising the minimum wage to $15. Another Siena poll showed a majority of voters across the state do support the gradual increase. 

Many residents in upstate New York agree with raising the minimum wage, but they also have very different thoughts about the effects.

Jamie Burgess lives in Buffalo and said there is a downside.

“Everything will go up, I believe that,” Burgess said. “They’re looking at, ‘We gave you more money, so we’re going to boost taxes and the cost of everything.’ ”

Demiqua Bryant, who lives close to Binghamton, is glad to have already secured her job at a fast-food company.

“There’s not going to be jobs anywhere, because everyone is going to be looking for a job because of the money raised,” Bryant said. “So I’m just happy that my job is going to do it, I already have my job before they do it.”

Robin Woolsey of Rochester said a higher minimum wage will make life a little easier. She sees the daily challenges that her sister, a certified nursing assistant, goes through.

“She struggles every month to pay her rent. Every month,” Woolsey said. “My niece just turned 17 and had to get her first job to help out her mother to help pay the rent and to help pay the bills.”

Back at Emmi and Sons Farm in Baldwinsville, Anthony Emmi knows the difficulty in running his business.

“If you’re not working every day, seven days a week, you’re not going to make it, the margins are that close,” Emmi said.

Emmi is the third generation in his family to run this farm — and he does not know if there will be a fourth.

“It might end with me, and I’m fine with that,” Emmi said. “It’s a struggle.”

Credit Joseph Ressler/RIT
Dan Coker waits for a bus to get to work at the Steve T. Hots and Potatoes restaurant in Gates, N.Y. Coker, who works the night shift for minimum wage, says that once you start working minimum wage, it is impossible to leave that economic situation.

To see the entire photo essay of minimum-wage worker Dan Coker by Rochester Institute of Technology student Joseph Ressler, click here.

Tom Magnarelli is a freelance reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area.