N.Y. officials and advocates clash on $15 minimum wage

As the nationwide push for a $15 minimum wage gains momentum and expands beyond the fast food industry, New York is poised to take the lead as the first state to adopt the wage floor for all workers.

But before the Fight for $15 movement can declare an unconditional victory in New York, a $15 minimum wage will first have to be approved in Albany, where Republicans holding a majority in the state Senate have raised serious concerns about the proposal.

In a preview of that battle, City & State on Wednesday hosted a panel of state lawmakers, policy experts and representatives of business and labor groups in a debate over the potential impact of a $15 minimum wage in New York.

Driving the issue is Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who in recent months has unilaterally imposed a $15 minimum for fast food and state workers and called for the same wage level for all workers. In a sign of his commitment to the wage hike, the governor has invoked the name of his late father, dubbing the effort the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice.

In keynote remarks at City & State’s event, Alphonso David, the counsel to the governor, noted that employees in New York earning the current state minimum wage, which is set to rise from $8.75 to $9 at the end of the year, take home an annual income of around $18,000. David then cited yearly cost estimates of $11,000 for housing for a family “of modest means,” $9,000 for food and $6,000 for clothing and other expenses.

“That doesn’t add up,” David said. “It goes well beyond $18,000 a year. Furthermore, the minimum wage has been outpaced by raising inflation and the higher cost of living since the 1970s, effectively eroding the purchasing power of millions of workers and families. So there should be no denying the fact that the current minimum wage is unlivable.”

David said that many older workers – and not just teenagers – would directly benefit from the governor’s proposed wage hike. Nearly half of New York residents who live outside of New York City and earn less than $15 an hour are at least 35 years old, he said, and a substantial majority are at least 25 years old. Of this upstate group of workers that make less than $15 an hour, about half are parents or married, he added, and many are the sole providers for their families.

“So from an individual and a demographic perspective, it’s clear we have to raise the minimum wage,” David said. “On top of condemning millions of people to live in poverty and hardship, an insufficient minimum wage also forces them to rely on public assistance to make ends meet, which creates a problem for government, and it creates a problem for all of us in this room.”

The Cuomo administration’s across-the-board wage proposal, announced in September, would be phased in over several years, hitting $15 at the end of 2018 in New York City and the same level in mid-2021 for the rest of the state. The phase-in would follow the same timeline as the pay increase for fast food workers across the state.

The governor is planning to introduce minimum wage legislation in the 2016 legislative session, which begins next month.

The Democratic-led Assembly, which regularly introduces legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage, has rallied behind Cuomo. Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, a Long Island Democrat, said her conference expects to pass the measure in 2016.

“It’s simple,” Solages said. “Why do we need a $15 minimum wage? Because no one who works full-time should live in poverty. It’s that simple.”

But critics say the tradeoffs that come with such a large wage hike would create too many burdens for many employers, especially in upstate New York and for small businesses and nonprofit social services providers. The potential jump from $9 to $15 is an unprecedented hike, they say, which increases the risk of substantial job losses as employers try to adapt to the growing costs.

Carlo Scissura, the president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, said that while he personally supports the governor’s proposal, his members are evenly split. Scissura said those that were worried about the hike want to pay their employees more, but that they already face rising costs on multiple fronts.

“So if it was just an increase in the minimum wage, great,” Scissura said. “Well, OK so, if it was just the paid sick leave, great. Well, now it’s this, and now it’s that. I think when you add up all of these mandates, business owners are now saying hold on a minute. Now we’re not sure any more.”

State Sen. Jack Martins, the Republican chairman of the state Senate Labor Committee, would not rule out a smaller increase to the state’s minimum wage, but echoed concerns about the impact on small businesses and other employers.

“Workforce development to me is incredibly important,” Martins said. “It’s something that’s missing in this dialogue. We keep talking about increasing the minimum wage and giving people the opportunity to not only earn more and be able to support their families, and for me it is critically important that we do so in a way that allows people to develop the skill sets necessary to fill those jobs that are available across New York state.”