When Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a $15 per hour statewide minimum wage earlier this month, his support for the proposal immediately put it on track to be the biggest labor issue that will be taken up next year – if not the biggest issue overall in 2016.

Assembly Democrats were quick to support the governor, with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie saying it would be a top priority. Senate Republicans have not ruled out a wage hike outright, but they are wary of an increase due to concerns about the cost burden it would put on companies.

State Sen. Jack Martins, a Republican who chairs the Labor Committee, told City & State that lawmakers would be assessing the impact on small businesses that might struggle to pay the higher wages. Martins argued the $15 figure announced by the governor was simply a political figure and not backed up by any analysis.“On the minimum wage and the viability of small businesses to continue to provide those jobs that we count on as we try and build this economy, you can’t increase the minimum wage and kill your small businesses,” Martins said. “It just can’t happen. So let’s have the discussion and figure out where that sweet spot is, where that number should be, but let’s do it properly, let’s do it with deliberation, let’s do it with all sides coming to the table, and let’s do it fairly.”

“The last thing anybody wants to see is policy being set arbitrarily,” he added. “Unfortunately, the governor is being arbitrary.”

Republicans have also pointed out that the state is already in the process of phasing in a higher minimum wage that was approved with bipartisan support. It is currently set at $8.75, and will rise to $9 an hour at the end of this year.

The proposed minimum wage builds on the governor’s Fast Food Wage Board recommendation of a $15 minimum for fast food workers, which the state Labor Department officially accepted earlier this month. The Wage Board process has also drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers, although it comes with a long-term phase-in (hitting $15 at the end of 2018 in New York City and July 2021 in the rest of the state) that could be a model for raising the statewide minimum wage.

Democrats note that New York’s minimum wage currently lags behind several other states in the region, and they assert that a higher minimum wage would not hurt the economy. Instead, they argue, it would help combat homelessness and reduce government subsidies.

“If you’re making $6 or $7 more an hour, you’re not going to take a vacation to the Caribbean, you’re going buy to milk and you’re going to buy Pampers,” said state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, a New York City Democrat. “You’re going to buy basic, essential products that you need, and that will help small businesses. I think it’s a great tool that not only puts money in the pocket of people that need it, but also helps the economy across the state of New York.”

One labor-oriented measure where both houses and both parties could find common ground is paid family leave legislation. The Assembly passed a paid family leave bill last year that would allow workers to keep their jobs and still receive some pay while taking time off to take care of a baby or an elderly relative or due to a medical emergency. Martins said he was open to passing similar legislation and that his conference expected to hold hearings on the issue.

“The question is how we deal with temporary disability insurance, which has not been, frankly, properly addressed since the late 1980s,” Martins said. “How do we do it in a way that is fair, so we’re not putting additional burdens on our business community at a time where they’re still frankly struggling with underwhelming economic indicators? They’re still struggling coming out of this recession.”

Additionally, Martins said that he will continue to focus on workforce development. As co-chairman of the Senate Task Force on Workforce Development, Martins said he would continue to hold hearings and work with the State University of New York system and state community colleges to find ways to better connect unemployed or underemployed New Yorkers with jobs.

Across the aisle, Democrats will be pushing legislation to provide more protections for farmworkers. Espaillat said that there is growing support for state legislation ensuring that agricultural laborers get one day off per week, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and overtime pay – including backing from some Senate Republicans.

“By treating them right, it’s very simple: A day off of work, getting paid overtime, having the right to collective bargaining and having some type of workers’ compensation bill,” Espaillat said. “That’s like having a no-brainer.”

THE STEADFAST SCAFFOLD LAW


New York's Scaffold Law, a provision that was put in place decades ago to protect workers at construction sites, has divided state lawmakers for years.

The law, known as Labor Law 240, holds construction companies and developers fully liable whenever a worker is hurt in a "gravity-related" accident, unless every precaution was taken to protect the worker. Even if a worker is partially responsible for the injury, the company is considered to be fully responsible in such cases, resulting in substantial settlement payments that drive up insurance costs.

Lawmakers have introduced legislation in recent years that would introduce a comparative liability standard that would make an injured worker partially liable if found to be at fault.

But supporters say the law is essential to ensure worker safety, and have opposed efforts to reform it. Organized labor groups, immigrant advocates and trial attorneys have joined a number of state legislators in defending the long-standing law.

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, considered a friend of the trial lawyers lobby, was widely seen as a key reason that the law was kept in place, but nothing changed after he stepped down as leader during this year's legislative session.

State Sen. Jack Martins said that he hasn't taken a side on the matter, but the Senate Labor Committee chairman suggested that changes could come if steps are taken to ensure that construction workers are adequately protected while working.

"From a labor standpoint, the labor community views it as a workforce safety issue, and I think it's important that we work with the labor community to ensure that our workers are protected," said Martins, a Republican. 

"Construction, specifically, is a dangerous profession. It just is. Any time you're on a work site anything can happen, and people get hurt far too often. If we can take steps to address workforce safety in conjunction with labor, I think that may go a long way toward making them more amenable to looking at the Scaffold Law and tweaking it, but it means going right to the root of what the issues are, as opposed to trying to deal with it politically."