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Long Island reacts to Obama's call to raise minimum wage

Patricia Orzano co-owns a 7-Eleven store with her

Patricia Orzano co-owns a 7-Eleven store with her husband in East Massapequa and says a weak business environment is her argument to reject President Obama’s call for a higher minimum wage. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

President Barack Obama's call for small-business owners to voluntarily raise employees' base wages was decried by Long Island employers who warned of job cutbacks, and welcomed by worker advocates citing the region's high cost of living.

Pat Orzano, who owns a 7-Eleven convenience store with her husband in East Massapequa, said the weak business environment argued against hiking wages: "I don't know where they think the economy is growing," she said. "It's a feel-good thing for anyone who's a politician."

In Tuesday night's State of the Union address, the president urged Congress to pass a bill lifting the minimum wage to $10.10, but also praised the owner of Punch Pizza in Minneapolis, who voluntarily raised employees' wages to $10.

"Give America a raise," Obama said.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but New York State's minimum rose to $8 as of Dec. 31, superseding the pay threshold set by Washington. New York State law calls for the minimum to rise to $8.75 by the end of 2014 and $9 by the end of 2015.

Rob Basso, president of Freeport-based Advantage Payroll Services, which serves about 3,000 clients, said small-business owners were complaining about the increase in New York State's minimum to $8 before Obama's address.

"Not one small-business owner I spoke to . . . said it was warranted," he said.

Though he said some business owners voiced sympathy for the plight of the low-paid workers, most said they would cut hours or jobs.

"Either way it would affect somebody negatively," said Basso, whose company processed more than $1 billion in payroll in 2013.

But Gregory Demetriou, chief executive of Lorraine Gregory Corp., a printing, direct-mail and communications company in Farmingdale, said he has long seen the wisdom of paying above-minimum wages to his 34 employees.

"I don't agree with him [Obama] too much," Demetriou said. But "you can't pay them $7 and change an hour and expect them to have self-respect and expect them to do anything." He said raising wages above the minimum curbed turnover and increased productivity.

Anita Halasz, executive director of Long Island Jobs With Justice, said she welcomed the state's minimum-wage increase, but cautioned that it would do little to lift low-wage Long Island families out of poverty given the high cost of living here.

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