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The Upstate Economy

Seneca County businesses band together to fight against $15 minimum wage

Ellen Abbott

The debate over increasing New York’s minimum wage to $15 an hour is hitting the streets in one small upstate New York community. Businesses in Seneca County are actively fighting the proposal.

Seneca County is nestled between two Finger Lakes and is a hilly cascade of ravines, pastures and woodlands. About 35,000 people inhabit the small towns and rural communities, many owning and operating the farms and wineries that dot the landscape. The Seneca County Chamber of Commerce represents 306 of these businesses. President Jeff Shipley says he’s never seen them more agitated about something as they are about the minimum wage proposal.

“I’ve got 15 pages of testimonials all across our community telling us what the impact of $15 minimum wage is,” said Shipley.

Seneca County is among 50 entities that make up the Minimum Wage Reality Check campaign, which contends that a 67 percent minimum wage hike will end in job losses, tax increases and a higher cost of living.

Shipley says while pro-business organizations take facts and figures to Albany to try to convince lawmakers to oppose the idea, it’s the small businesses themselves that make the most compelling arguments.

Like the Magee Country Diner in Waterloo.

The diner sits just off a Thruway exit. It’s near a popular outlet mall, and owner Gary Schlegel unabashedly says he supports the Lago Casino that’s going up down the road. So things should be looking up. But right now, he’s still trying to cope with a January minimum wage increase for his 35 or so employees.

“[It means] probably another $2,000 a week in payroll," said Schlegel.

So prices have gone up -- a bit here a bit there. A cup of coffee now costs over $2. If the minimum wage goes up to $15, he says it’ll cost even more for a bite to eat. 

"My food cost is going to go up along with my labor cost. And it’s going to be a tough nut to chew. And you really have to stay on top of your menu, you really do, to survive,” said Schlegel.

Schlegel says there’s no way he can cut back on employees and keep up with a busy diner. But he will have to change the type of people he hires to more skilled labor as opposed to many of the college and high school kids who work there now.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
Gary Schlegel, owner of Magee Country Diner in Waterloo.

“It’s not going to be that kid that you know, his mom and dad told him to get a job. I’m not going to give him $32,000 dollars a year full time,” he said.

The Cayuga Lake Creamery is in Interlaken, a rural community 30 miles south of the Thruway. It was named one of America’s top Ice Cream parlors by USA Today a few years ago. It features eclectic flavors that sprout from the bounty of nearby breweries, wineries and farms, like asparagus Ice cream.

“It tastes exactly like asparagus, so people that like asparagus, really like that ice cream. If you hate asparagus, don’t try it,” said owner Jeff Kostick.

Kostick figures the payroll for his 35 mostly seasonal, mostly high school student workforce goes up to $15 an hour, it would reach close to $450,000, and drive up the cost of a cone.

“From a single scoop being probably $4 after the next 20 percent raise I have to do just to catch up, to about $6.50 for an ice cream cone."

Kostick is from Brookyn, and is not opposed to increasing the minimum wage altogether. He thinks a regional increase that would take into account differences in the cost of living between upstate and downstate makes sense. And he has lobbied some downstate lawmakers about it. But he gets the sense none of them seem to be listening to the business side of the story.

“I have asked them who is telling you this is a good thing, and they say the individuals. And I said have you polled any of the small business to see what their feeling was. [They say] No, we really haven’t," said Kostick.

Menzo Case, president of Generations Bank in Seneca Falls, agrees that business needs to get their story out better, but suggests it’s difficult.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
Menzo Case, president of Generations Bank in Seneca Falls.

“How do you fight a trend that’s emotions-driven. It’s like national politics.  Emotions are driving the vote more than sound policy discussions.”

As for the bank, Case says a $15 minimum wage will mean cuts in other kinds of compensation for his employees.

"Our benefit package is approximately 25 percent of compensation, and we see no end, because of the medical insurance costs keep escalating. Pension costs keep escalating. So we’ll cut these things that are better for employees,” said Case.

Case also sees the impact from the lending side of things, 

"We’re not seeing the kind of through put we would normally see in ideas and hope that there’s a better way. I’ve got this product, I can do it here. Our young kids are leaving. Now they’re not even interested in staying, because they can’t do anything in this state."

These businesses are hoping they can get the same kind of attention supporters of the minimum wages Fight for 15 campaign is getting. So they’ll continue to talk to lawmakers, take part in a “15 is Mean” social media campaign. And they are placing posters in their windows that encourage customers to ask how an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour would affect their business.