Though New York’s lawmakers are infamous for their ethical failings, Albany is about to do the right thing for once: serve the state’s fast-food workers some long-overdue justice. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Wage Board, a three-member panel representing business, labor and the public, has for weeks heard gut-wrenching testimonies from workers and labor advocates at hearings across the state, and is now expected to recommend raising the minimum hourly wage for fast-food workers to $15. That will impact some 180,000 people currently earning around $16,000 a year doing strenuous, dirty work in drive-throughs and greasy kitchens. The governor is then expected to make final approval to set a new sector-specific wage—a unique mechanism that, similar to President Obama’s recent executive actions on federal worker wages, can bypass the legislature. The measure marks a major milestone for the Fight for 15 movement, which started in New York over two years ago when a small group of workers decided to walk off the job.
[Update: The Wage Board has announced an incremental timetable to raise the wage to $15 an hour by the end of 2018 in New York City and 2021 statewide, for fast food outlets belonging to “chains that have 30 or more locations nationally.”]
In recent weeks, workers aired words of pride and despair; they cheered each other when they started getting nerves, having developed camaraderie after participating in strikes to demand a fair wage and the right to form a union.
At a June hearing in Albany, some of the poorest workers, in one of the richest states, related stories like being stuck working a grill because they couldn’t afford to finish their degree. A young man talked of wiring money home to the Dominican Republic to support relatives, and begging for train fare just to get to work.
Yet, while New York’s current minimum wage of $8.75 an hour clearly isn’t enough to live on (many fast-food workers rely on public benefits), the demand for decent pay has met with fierce corporate resistance. Some industry representatives have warned that raising wages too quickly could lead to job losses, or if the standard was too strict, could force “mom and pop” eateries out of businesses. But the voices with the strongest resonance articulated the simple luxuries that a living wage could bring: a single day off, or a chance to move out of the homeless shelter.
Some employers actively advocate for a policy to push wages up across the state. Amy Collins, owner of New Shelves Publishing Services stated that she paid her own workers a starting wage of $15 an hour, so the massive multinationals of the fast food industry had no excuse: “If I can afford it, so can McDonald’s.”
The workers could certainly teach their bosses about careful budgeting. Parents packed cheap burgers all day and returned home without money or time to cook a decent meal for their families. Students shuttled from one job to another until they were too exhausted to study. A young father of a toddler, Pierre Odilus Metivier, testified, “Sometimes at school I can’t help but fall asleep… I know I’m not getting the most of my education.”