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NY $15 Minimum Wage For Fast-Food Workers Gets Green Light

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New York is setting the bar when it comes to the minimum wage.

The call for a $15-an-hour minimum wage has been garnering both support and opposition in New York and nationwide. In May, Governor Andrew Cuomo requested the Wage Board consider hiking pay for fast-food workers, which it approved last week.  In June he attended a rally in New York City.   "And then you have the minimum wage, which is supposed to be a living wage. When FDR passed the law, that's what he said."

Mark Emanatian, Capital District Organizer for Citizen Action, offers insight into FDR's depression-era rule and Cuomo's effort to move it forward:  "It was set up that when the legislature wouldn't act to raise the wages of working people, the wage board was set up by legislation to look into conditions of certain workers in certain sectors of the economy, to see if their health and well-being was taken care of by the wages they were getting. And so, it's a 63-year-old law that Governor Cuomo enacted last year to take a look at people in the tipped worker industry, and the wage board raised their wages from $5 to $7.50."

On one occasion, Cuomo told reporters he was uncomfortable with the phrase “income inequality.” "It suggest you don't like the rich people. And that's not true. We aspire to wealth. I hope my kids are millionaires. Acquisition of wealth is a good thing. It's the American Dream. That's why people came here."

The Cuomo-appointed Fast Food Wage Board in July recommended chain restaurants in New York City with more than 30 locations nationwide up wages to at least $15 an hour by 2018.

The proposition sparked heated debate.  Activist Mark Dunlea works with the Campaign For A Real Minimum Wage Increase:   "We do agree his [Cuomo's] idea of trying to do it just for fast-food workers but particularly only for fast-food workers for certain large companies, 30 franchises, does raise some legal questions about his strategy."

The business sector cringed. In August, Mike Durant, with the National Federation of Independent Businesses, told public radio that while many fast food companies are multimillion dollar corporations, the actual fast food restaurants are often franchises owned by Mom and Pop style companies with very low profit margins, around 3 or 4 percent. He says other costs are also rising, including providing health care under the federal Affordable Care Act, and New York’s high worker’s compensation costs.  “It’s like a balloon. And when you squeeze it at one end, in this instance, labor costs, it can be something that puts them over the edge.”

He predicts the over 40 percent increase in labor costs over the next few years is likely to lead to fewer hours for fast food workers, the closing of restaurants, and even more automation of jobs traditionally held by human workers.

Nonetheless, Cuomo continued pushing his plan.

Last week, Vice President Joe Biden visited Manhattan, where he appeared onstage at a labor rally with Cuomo.  "Middle class wages are still stagnant, and the working poor are living poverty. So governor, I applaud you for steppin' up with a smart, reasonable plan!"

A beaming Cuomo walked the crowd through the process that enabled his plans to come to fruition. "A study was released just this week that showed there is not a single neighborhood in New York City that is affordable to someone earning the minimum wage. So several months ago, we empaneled a wage board to study the minimum wage of fast food workers... they recommended a wage of $15 an hour. That recommendation went to New York State Commissioner of Labor Mario Musolino, and I am pleased to announce today that the state of New York's labor department has accepted the wage board recommendation in full, and 150,000 fast-food workers will see their wages rise to $15 an hour!"

Dunlea has reservations.  "$15 an hour still falls short of a living wage in most parts of New York state, especially if you have children. Probably the biggest problem in most communities is the cost of housing, especially downstate."

New York's minimum wage is currently $8.75 an hour and will rise to $9 an hour on December 31st.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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