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Minimum wage boost remains on the table

Photo from Karen Dewitt

The fourth and final hearing was held by a board specially appointed Governor Cuomo to consider raising the minimum wage for fast food workers in New York.

Outside, supporters of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour held a rally.

Inside, dozens of fast food workers are among the over 170 people who testified at the last hearing held by Cuomo’s wage board, which is examining whether to raise the state’s minimum wage beyond the current rate of increase to $9.00 an hour by the end of 2015. 

Jaquie Jordan, 49 who works at McDonald’s, says she’s worked in fast food all her life. Jordan says she’s struggling to support herself and her disabled husband with the low amount of income she earns. She says she’s currently living in a weekly hotel, where the rent is $230 a week. She earns $235 a week.  

“We are cramped into one small room. We have lost most of our possessions,” said Jordan, who says even though she receives food stamps, it’s impossible to buy and cook healthy meals with just a tiny refrigerator and a microwave.  

She says earning poverty wages, she can’t save for a security deposit to rent an apartment, and walks to work because she can’t afford a bus pass.

“I just want a life with less worry,” Jordan said.

Ulster County Executive Mike Hein says it’s a myth that fast food workers are primarily teenagers looking for spending money at the mall. He says the average age of the estimated 200,000 New Yorkers employed by national fast food chains is 29. He says most have high school diplomas, one third have been to college, and one quarter are parents.

Hein says middle class and even business property tax payers have an interest in seeing the wage increased. He says most fast food workers depend on some kind of public assistance, and a significant portion of that is financed by county governments. The counties get their revenue to pay for the food stamps, Medicaid and other programs through property taxes.

“In essence, that means that hard working property taxpayers, including other businesses in our communities are forced to subsidize the entire fast food industry, “Hein said.  “Allowing large corporations to rake in higher profits.”

The state’s Business Council urged the board to use caution, though, before deciding to raise wages for just one segment of the food industry. The Council’s Ken Pokalsky says it could cause confusion among the growing number of businesses who include a convenience store, a gas station, and a fast food franchise all at the same location.

“Are you going to adopt a wage order saying a cashier at one location is going to be subject to a significantly different wage order than the one across the hall?” Pokalsky asked

The Business Council, which does not have any fast food companies among its membership of largely manufacturing firms, says the vast majority of its members pay more than the minimum wage to workers.

But Pokalsky says economically troubled upstate New York is not Los Angeles, or Seattle Washington, and a 60 percent increase in the minimum wage all at once, equivalent to an additional $14,000 per year per worker, could lead to layoffs and business closures.  

“We do not believe this sector which is a fairly thin profit market sector, can absorb that,” Pokalsky said.  

The business group also believes it would be better to let the legislature set the wages, as it has done for over 50 years. He says when the governor and lawmakers raised the minimum wage two years, ago, they also had the authority to offer small businesses a tax credit to help them afford the higher wages. The wage board does not have those powers.

Wage board member Mike Fishman, with the health care workers union SEIU, pointed out that the governor convened the wage board because the measure was stalled in the Republican led State Senate.

Fishman and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who is also on the wage board, seemed largely sympathetic to the plight of the fast food workers.

Cuomo appointed a similar board to examine raising the minimum wage for tipped workers, and that board ultimately decided to increase their wages.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.