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Minimum wage compromise draws mixed reviews

The newly approved state budget includes a minimum wage increase that is the result of several compromises.

Announcing the details in a briefing, Governor Cuomo spelled out a complex plan that would allow New York City’s minimum wage workers to receive $15 an hour in three years, Long Island and Westchester employees to get $15 in six years, and the rest of the state to reach $12.50 in five years.  The governor admits he had to make concessions, but says the new plan will work.

“This minimum wage increase will be of national significance,” Cuomo predicted. “It’s not just raising the minimum wage. It’s raising the minimum wage in a way that’s responsible.”

After the first five years, when upstate is to reach $12.50 an hour, there would be a break, so that Governor Cuomo’s budget officials can examine whether the economy can sustain indexing the minimum wage upstate to eventually reach $15 an hour.

Karen Scharff, with the progressive group Citizen Action, says the new law is a “victory” for workers in New York City- but falls short for upstate, where she says the lowest paid workers will be “condemned to poverty”. She says 50% of children in Syracuse and Rochester live in poverty, with the other upstate cities not far behind.

“That’s not going to change until workers can earn wages that take them out of poverty,” Scharff said. “ Right now, we’re not giving them that opportunity.”

She says the sad reality is that for many in our economy, minimum wage jobs have become their life long careers, and that is not likely to change.

“The biggest growing jobs are in retail and other low wage jobs,” said Scharff. “As long as those are the jobs that are growing, we can’t build a strong economy unless those jobs pay a living wage.”

Scharff says her group is happy with a paid family leave program, which begins in two years and, once fully phased in would make New York’s program the most generous in the nation. They also like the inclusion of more money to turn schools in poor areas into community schools with more services for children.

The health care workers union 1199, which financed a specially designed bus and provided audiences for a series of rallies promoting the $15 minimum wage, called the new law “historic”, and said it  “ means fewer hardworking homecare workers, nurse assistants and other caregivers will have to rely on food stamps to feed their families”.

Mike Durant, with the National Federation of Independent Businesses, says the compromise falls far short of what small businesses need to survive.  And he says the new law will “threaten the viability of New York’s small businesses”, and will create “economic uncertainty”.  He says he can’t “justify” the new law, even with its concessions, to his membership .

Durant says his group is particular unhappy with some Senate Republicans who he says did not fight hard enough against the increase. He says they do appreciate some other GOP Senators who did try to stop the $15 minimum wage, even if they ultimately voted for it. The final vote in the Senate was 60 to 1.

Durant says he doesn’t believe that the upstate minimum wage will stop at the current threshold of $12.50 an hour. He points out that the “pause” for an economic analysis will be done by Governor Cuomo’s own aides.

“They feel that nothing negative is going to happen, and  that this will just create an economic utopia for New York, and we disagree,” Durant said. “But I think that this governor is never going to hit a pause button.”

Cuomo says he intends to be governor in 2019. He’s already said he’s seeking re election in 2018.

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.