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State wage board poised to raise pay for fast food workers


A wage board convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to vote to raise the hourly minimum rate for fast food workers in New York state from the current $8.75 cents an hour to as high as $15 an hour when it meets on Wednesday.

The board was appointed by Cuomo when Republicans in the New York State Senate did not agree to raise the minimum wage any higher than the current phased-in increase, which will bring the minimum wage to $9 an hour by the end of this year.

All three of the wage board members say they back an increase, and the governor, speaking over the weekend in the Adirondacks, says he’s pushing for a significant raise for fast food workers.

“We need to raise the minimum wage,” Cuomo said. “It is just not possible to live on the current minimum wage, especially in high cost areas of the state.”

Cuomo already appointed a wage board that earlier this year granted an increase to tipped workers who wait tables at restaurants, tend bar, and hold other jobs where some of their income is dependent on tips.  

The governor has not said whether he backs increasing the wage to $15, but Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul has attended several rallies held at the board’s meetings by advocates of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. At the most recent meeting, she derided large salaries paid to fast food CEOs, compared to typical wages for workers.

“It’s $23 million on average,” said Hochul, as those in the crowd shouted “Ridiculous!”

“This industry makes billions of dollars globally,” said Hochul. “So it occurs to me and our governor, that they’ve got a little bit more to spread around to all of you.”

The board heard testimony from dozens of workers at fast food  chains who detailed the struggles they endure trying to make ends meet, including Jaqui Jordan, who works at a McDonald’s in an Albany suburb and lives in a motel.

“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.  

Credit Karen DeWitt / WRVO News File Photo
WRVO News File Photo
Fast food worker Jaqui Jordan testifies at an earlier wage board meeting.

Not everyone believes that a substantial increase in the minimum wage would be a good idea.  The New York State Restaurant Association warns that anything but a slow phased-in increase  in the minimum wage will wreak havoc with  labor costs and customer prices for franchise owners.

And Business Council of New York State President Heather Briccetti says it would be better to let the legislature vote on the issue. She says using an appointed board to essentially restructure the wages in an entire industry is undemocratic, and was not original purpose of the wage boards.

“It’s clearly not what was intended by the statute,” Briccetti said.

Briccetti served on the previous wage board, where she had sought a more limited increase for tipped workers. She says her idea was ignored and she was overruled by the other two members, and has become disillusioned by the process.

“It seems like a done deal,” she says of the current wage board.

The Business Council also believes that while a large and rapid wage increase would benefit some workers, it will lead to lay offs of other employees.

The wage board is also considering paying part time workers more money than those with full time jobs, as an incentive for fast food outlets to hire more full time employees, who would then be eligible for more benefits.  

Cuomo says he considers the wage board on fast food workers just a “first step," leaving open the possibility that other minimum wage works in the state could soon see their pay go up, too.

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.