NY Moves Toward $15 Minimum Wage for Fast Food Workers

Fight for $15
Fast food workers rally for a $15 per hour minimum wage. (Photo credit: Fight for $15/Facebook)

A coalition of fast food workers, unions and activists hailed Wednesday’s vote by a New York State-appointed fast food wage board to increase the minimum wage to $15 for fast food workers as a historic decision that would help pull people out of the depths of poverty and embolden others to fight for similar wage increases.

The three-member wage board, empaneled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in May after the state legislature rejected a proposal to increase the minimum wage, voted 3-0 at a well-attended public meeting in New York City to approve a motion raising fast food worker’ minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2021 statewide.

As the board voted on the motion, many in the crowd took it upon themselves to punctuate the board’s vote, yelling: “Aye!”

Afterward, a raucous crowd holding “$15” signs rallied in Manhattan as speakers vowed to continue fighting until all workers struggling to afford rising rent obligations, food, medical bills and various other expenses are similarly compensated.

“It is an injustice when you have growing income inequality,” Cuomo told the crowd from a packed stage, joined by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and a mix of union chiefs and fast food workers. “It is an injustice when working families in this country have actually gone backwards over the past 10 years… it is a shame that in this nation today, with all of our progress, you still have one out of five children in poverty. That is a shame.”

“You cannot live and support a family on $18,000 per year in the state of New York,” Cuomo added.

The jubilant crowd celebrated the victory despite several governmental hurdles that remain.

The wage board’s recommendation is limited only to fast food workers employed by a chains with 30 or more locations, such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King. Also, fast food workers will have to wait several years before they feel the full effect of the so-called “Fight for $15.”

The wage board must finalize its report and submit it to acting State Labor Commissioner Mario Musolino by July 27, when the completed report is expected to be approved. A 15-day public comment period will go into effect once the report is published. The wage order must be filed within 45 days of the report being published. Cuomo said in an op-ed in The New York Times earlier this summer that the board’s recommendations don’t require legislative approval.

If approved by the labor department, the wage increase will fully go into effect in New York City by Dec. 31, 2018, and for Long Islanders and the rest of the state by July 1, 2021. The board recommended incremental minimum wage increases of $1.50 for New York City fast food workers beginning at the end of this year, and continuing until New Year’s Eve 2018. Long Islanders would see state-mandated raises of at least $1 until 2020. At that point, fast food workers living in Nassau or Suffolk counties would be making $14.50. A 50-cent increase on July 1, 2021 would push them to the coveted $15 wage.

“Fast food workers desperately need a wage [increase] and now they’re going to get one,” Lisa Tyson, director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, told the Press shortly after the board’s vote. She noted that there’s currently 25,000 fast food workers on LI, many of whom are struggling to afford the high cost of living in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Tyson, like others at the rally, sounded eager to continue the minimum wage fight, which began nearly three years ago as a grassroots movement and ballooned into a nationwide effort.

At least one presidential candidate has jumped on board. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is officially identified as an Independent but labels himself as a progressive democratic socialist, has proposed increasing the federal minimum wage from its current rate of $7.25 per hour to $15. And in his 2014 State of the Union, President Obama has called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $10.10.

“The wage board did their research, and what they found was very clear: these fast food restaurants are literally making billions in profit” and not sharing earnings with their workers, Tyson said. “They are desperate right now to try to prevent this from happening, and they are just being greedy.”

The reaction from those opposed to the wage increase was swift.

“From day one Governor Cuomo’s wage board has sought to silence the business community and force through an unfair and discriminatory increase on a single sector of one industry,” Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the NYS Restaurant Association, said in a statement.

“From stacking the board with supporters of an increase to allowing business owners to get booed and heckled at public hearings, the governor has rigged the game at every turn,” she added. “Since the governor used a process that rejects compromise the result is an extremist policy that will force business owners in this low profit margin industry to cut hours, lay off employees and use technology to help offset skyrocketing labor costs.”

A group of fast food franchisees has reportedly hired former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s deputy to challenge the board’s recommendations, but it’s unclear how he intends to fight the board’s vote.

“This proposal is an irrational and discriminatory race to judgment to achieve a predetermined outcome,” said Randy Mastro, Giuliani’s former deputy mayor, in a statement. “And it targets only fast food franchisees, who, in reality, are small business owners, many of them minorities and women, who are already struggling to survive on low margins and cannot afford this 66-percent increase in labor costs for their entry-level workers.”

To workers struggling to get by, Tyson said the board’s recommendation represents more than just an injection of money for low-income individuals.

“It’s hope that it’s going to get better,” she said.