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Advocates urge minimum wage hike

Karen DeWitt/WRVO

Advocates for a minimum wage hike rallied at the state Capitol Monday, amid growing signals that there might not be a special session to deal with the issue, or any items at all this year.

The rally, organized by churches located in Albany near the Capitol, as well as statewide religious groups, used words like faith and morals when talking about the connection they see between the growth of people coming to food pantries and the state’s stagnant minimum wage.

The Rev. Deb Jameson operates a food pantry just one block away from where state lawmakers meet.  She says nearly half of the clients have jobs.

“No one should be trapped in poverty by low wages,” Jameson said. “If the minimum wage does not cover necessities, it’s not a minimum wage. It’s a minus wage.”

Outside, around 100 people held signs and chanted on the steps of the Capitol, asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers to raise the minimum wage in New York from the current $7.25 to $8.50.

The lawmakers were not in Albany, and have not been since last June.  There was talk of holding a special session in December, where agenda items might include a hike in the minimum wage, and an increase in state lawmakers’ pay. But Cuomo has been preoccupied with the clean-up after Hurricane Sandy, and the state Senate is in the midst of a potential leadership struggle. Though Republicans are in charge until the end of the year, two November races are still being counted, and there is uncertainty over who might be in control in January.  

Mark Dunlea, with Hunger Action Network, says the governor could ask the legislature to return to raise the minimum wage without having to deal with any of those other issues.

“It should be about a five minute meeting,” said Dunlea, who says a simple up or down vote could be held. Dunlea says polls show 80 percent of New Yorkers would like to see the minimum wage increased.

Rob Smith, with Interfaith Impact, agrees that a pay raise for state lawmakers does not need to be part of the deal.

“There is no moral equivalency between the minimum wage, which effects hundreds of thousands of low paid workers in this state, and raising the wages of very affluent people,” Smith said.  

Base pay for lawmakers is $79,500 a year, which Smith says is a sum that could be considered affluent.  Many legislators receive additional stipends of several thousand dollars for committee and leadership posts.  A 40-hour work week at the minimum wage nets $15,080 per year.

The advocates say if the special session does not occur, then they would like to see the minimum wage issue raised early in the new year. They are also asking for $10 million more in the state budget to help fund the hundreds of food pantries and soup kitchens in the state patronized by around three million New Yorkers. They say there has been an 11 percent increase in demand since last year.  

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.