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Minimum wage compromise draws criticism and praise

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO News File Photo

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

Announcing the details in a briefing, Gov. Andrew 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 said 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 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, said the new law is a victory for workers in New York City, but falls short for upstate where she said the lowest paid workers will be “condemned to poverty.” She said 50 percent 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 said 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,” Scharff said. “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 said 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 home care 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, said the compromise falls far short of what small businesses need to survive. And he said the new law will “threaten the viability of New York’s small businesses" and will create economic uncertainty. He said he can’t justify the new law, even with its concessions to his membership.

Durant said his group is particular unhappy with some Senate Republicans who he said did not fight hard enough against the increase. He said 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 60-1.

Durant said 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 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 said 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. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.