Thursday, July 23, 2015

New York Plans $15-an-Hour Minimum Wage for Fast Food Workers
New York Times
JULY 22, 2015

The labor protest movement that fast-food workers in New York City began nearly three years ago has led to higher wages for workers all across the country. On Wednesday, it paid off for the people who started it.

A panel appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recommended on Wednesday that the minimum wage be raised for employees of fast-food chain restaurants throughout the state to $15 an hour over the next few years. Wages would be raised faster in New York City than in the rest of the state to account for the higher cost of living there.

The panel’s recommendations, which are expected to be put into effect by an order of the state’s acting commissioner of labor, represent a major triumph for the advocates who have rallied burger-flippers and fry cooks to demand pay that covers their basic needs. They argued that taxpayers were subsidizing the workforces of some multinational corporations, like McDonald’s, that were not paying enough to keep their workers from relying on food stamps and other welfare benefits.

The $15 wage would represent a raise of more than 70 percent for workers earning the state’s current minimum wage of $8.75 an hour. Advocates for low-wage workers said they believed the mandate would quickly spur raises for employees in other industries across the state, and a jubilant Mr. Cuomo predicted that other states would follow his lead.

“When New York acts, the rest of the states follow,” said Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, citing the state’s passage of the law making same-sex marriage legal. “We’ve always been different, always been first, always been the most progressive.”

The decision, announced in a conference room in Lower Manhattan, set off a raucous celebration by hundreds of workers and union leaders outside.

Flavia Cabral, 53, a grandmother from the Bronx who works part-time in a McDonald’s for $8.75 an hour, pointed out the scars where fry baskets had seared her forearms. “At least they listened to us,” she said, referring to the panel. “We’re breathing little by little.”

Bill Lipton, state director of the Working Families Party, called the decision a victory for the “99-percenters.” Mr. Lipton, who has campaigned for better pay for low-wage workers for years, said, “There’s clearly a new standard for the minimum wage, and it’s actually a living wage for the first time in many, many decades.”

The decision comes on the heels of similar increases in minimum wages in other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to raise the county’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, matching a move the Los Angeles City Council made in June.

But a more complicated political terrain in New York forced Mr. Cuomo to take a different route.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has demanded a higher minimum wage in the city to account for its higher cost of living. But neither he nor the City Council has the power to set wages citywide.

When lawmakers in Albany balked at the idea, Mr. Cuomo convened a board to look at wages in the fast-food industry, which is one of the biggest employers of low-wage workers in the state, with about 180,000 employees.

After hearing testimony from dozens of fast-food workers, the board members decided the state should mandate that fast-food chains pay more. Advocates often pointed to the giant pay packages the chains gave to their top executives.

The board’s decision removed the last significant hurdle to raising wages, since the acting labor commissioner, Mario Musolino, who must act on the recommendation, is widely expected to accept it.

The board said the first wage increase should come by Dec. 31, taking the minimum in the city to $10.50 and in the rest of the state to $9.75. The wage in the city would then rise in increments of $1.50 annually for the next three years, until it reaches $15 at the end of 2018. In the rest of the state, the hourly wage would rise each year, reaching $15 on July 1, 2021.

The mandate should apply to all workers in fast-food restaurants that are part of chains with at least 30 outlets, the board said. They defined fast food as food and drinks served at counters where customers pay before eating and can take their food with them if they choose.

The restaurant industry has chafed at these decisions. “We continue to say that we think it’s unfair that they singled out a single segment of our industry,” Melissa Fleischut, the executive director of the New York State Restaurant Association, said.

McDonald’s, a multinational corporation that paid its chief executive more than $7.5 million last year, said in April that it would raise the minimum wage it pays workers in company-owned stores to $9.90 by July 1 and to more than $10 next year.

But the association noted that the impact would be felt at much smaller chains than McDonald’s or Taco Bell. Companies as small as Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill, a chain of about 100 casual restaurants in New York City, would appear to fit the board’s definition.

Economists predicted the increases would ripple out to other restaurants and other industries that pay low wages.

“It will likely put pressure on employers in other industries to raise wages in order to compete for workers,” Irene Tung, a policy researcher for the National Employment Law Project, said. “It would be very attractive for somebody working at the Gap, making around $9 an hour, to look across the street and see Chipotle paying $2 or $3 or $4 more and decide that they would rather work at Chipotle,” she said, referring to the fast-food burrito chain.

Ms. Tung said this would be the first time that a state had raised the minimum wage for a particular industry.

Laura Jankowski, who owns three Tropical Smoothie cafes on Long Island, said she had already raised prices to offset the increase in the state minimum wage that took effect last year. Though she was not certain that the new wage rules would apply to her businesses, she feared customers would complain at paying much more than $4.99 for a 24-ounce drink.

Most likely, she said, she would have to make do with fewer workers, all of whom she said were high school or college students working part-time. “It really is going to come to less people,” Ms. Jankowski said by telephone from her cafe in Port Jefferson Station. “What I envision is cutting labor, hiring less people, having less people per shift.”

Already on Wednesday afternoon, some retail workers in Manhattan were wondering, what about us? “We deserve it, too,” said Mary Gomes, 51, who works at a Duane Reade drugstore, where she said she earned $9.20 per hour.

Brittany Thomas, 20, who works at a Lady Foot Locker store, said it would not be fair to raise wages only for fast-food workers given that “there are a lot of jobs that require more work than serving food.”

Ms. Thomas said, “We all work hard for our checks.”

Ileanna Najarro contributed reporting.

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