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A living wage shouldn’t just be for people who are willing to work in 135-degree heat next to a glass furnace.

This was the message from state labor officials Thursday during a tour of Vitro Architectural Glass in South Middleton Township, which cited the company’s increased wages as a means of success.

“In my opinion, Vitro is a model employer,” for Pennsylvania, said Jennifer Berrier, deputy secretary with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, who added she was “extremely impressed with what I saw today” at the glass manufacturing facility.

“It’s impressive that you’re able to work in these conditions and still have a smile on your face,” Berrier told employees.

The Vitro visit comes roughly five months before Gov. Tom Wolf will present his executive budget for the 2020-21 fiscal cycle. But Wolf’s push for a minimum wage increase — something he has asked for in every budget proposal, but not yet gotten from the Legislature — has become a year-round endeavor.

The Vitro plant, just east of Mount Holly Springs, was owned by PPG until 2016, when PPG sold off its flat-glass manufacturing division.

Since then, Vitro has rebuilt both of the plant’s production lines, which produce roughly 1,200 tons of glass per day.

This multimillion dollar capital investment was a major undertaking, according to Mary Schlusser of Vitro’s human resources division. The main furnaces take 30 days to cool down, 45 days to refurbish, and another 30 days to heat back up to full operating levels.

These furnaces are also what create the hot conditions, which peak at roughly 135 degrees when one walks between the two furnaces at the start of the production line, according to production engineer Todd Magee.

Workers are closely supervised and required to take frequent water breaks, according to Schlusser and Magee, and new employees are slowly acclimated if they are working in a part of the factory that experiences extreme heat.

Many of the positions at Vitro also require extensive on-the-job training, given the specialized nature of operating a glass furnace, the quarter-mile-long cooling conveyors, or any other specialized production process.

This is why it’s important for Vitro to pay a family-sustaining wage in order to reduce employee turnover that ultimately reduces production efficiency, Schlusser said.

A few months ago, the company bumped its starting wage from $16.71 to $17.44, Schlusser said. Employees who stay on for a year are guaranteed $18 per hour. Apprenticeship positions start even higher.

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However, Vitro’s efforts to increase wages and capital investment haven’t been mimicked by the broader market.

As Schlusser said in her remarks, the broad economic expansion in the past decade, which brought Cumberland County’s unemployment rate below the 3 percent mark earlier this year, has not reduced economic hardship in the area.

The county’s poverty rate has actually increased since the economic recovery, according to the Census Bureau, Schlusser said. In 2010, 3.6 percent of families and 6.4 percent of families with children in the county were living below the poverty line. In 2017, those numbers had risen to 4.4 and 8.8 percent, respectively.

“There’s a lot of opportunity but not a lot of living wages,” Schlusser said.

A Brookings Institution study in 2017 found that the Harrisburg-Carlisle metro area, encompassing all of Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties, had one of the worst experiences out of 100 US census divisions in terms of wage inequality from 2010 to 2015. Median wages dropped 1.6 percent, and the number of Midstate residents earning less than half that median grew 5.3 percent.

This has likely gotten worse since, given that average weekly wages for the Harrisburg-Carlisle region dropped $15 on average during the two-year span of 2017 and 2018, adjusting for inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On a national scale, investment like Vitro’s is increasingly rare. Nonresidential fixed investment, a measure of capital growth from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, declined by 0.6 percent for the second quarter of 2019.

Wolf’s crusade for a minimum wage increase has traditionally been opposed by Republicans who prefer a free-market approach and are reluctant to have government dictate a wage floor. But Democrats have made the lack of movement on wages in Pennsylvania a moral issue.

“People who work hard don’t deserve to struggle to put food on the table,” Berrier said. “Right now is the time for us to institute a healthy minimum wage.”

Projections of minimum wage increases’ impacts typically show a trade-off between higher wages and employers reducing headcounts or cutting hours to compensate. The Congressional Budget Office, in a study issued in July, predicted that a $15 federal minimum wage would lift 1.3 million households out of poverty, but could also trigger a loss of 1.3 million jobs.

Recent empirical studies of jurisdictions that have raised the minimum wage during the economic expansion have been more positive.

A study of six cities that raised their minimum wage between 2012 and 2016, conducted by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California-Berkeley, showed that minimum wages of between $10 and $13 created “statistically significant positive effects on earnings” without “negative significant employment effects.”

An even broader study of 138 minimum wage changes between 1979 and 2016, conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the Economic Policy Institute, and University College London, found that “the overall number of low-wage jobs remained essentially unchanged over five years following the increase.”

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Email Zack at zhoopes@cumberlink.com.

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Cumberland County/Investigative Reporter

Reporter for The Sentinel.