They could have gone on for days, telling their stories about the day-to-day stresses, like choosing between eating and keeping the lights on, taking on a night shift to pay for daycare, or maybe skipping lunch so your kids can eat today. The New York State Labor Department’s fast-food wage board heard many workers on Monday talk about the creative ways they survived on fast food wages in the city, but all of these stories concluded with a simple demand: $15 an hour.
Julia Andino, a 20-year-old single mother with tired eyes, said her job at McDonald’s paid so little, she had to “pick and choose what bills you have to go through.” Her application for public assistance had been rejected, she added, because, she was told, “I was able to pick up a second job if needed. I can’t do it. My son’s only 3…. How are you supposed to get two jobs, go to school, try to pay your bills, but no one’s home, feeding and taking care of your kid? It’s impossible.”
Not long ago, $15 an hour for a “burger-flipping” gig would have sounded impossible too. But now, pressed by a nationwide grassroots labor movement, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s wage board is potentially poised to nearly double the base wage for a fast-food labor force of nearly 165,000 people statewide.
The hearing at New York University sometimes had the feel of a group therapy session, as workers described their day-to-day misery before the panel—comprised of three appointees representing labor, business, and civil society—and their movement compatriots murmured supportive words from the audience.
Under crushing financial pressure, some of Julia’s coworkers were prone to anxiety attacks at work she said: “If you would ask me what I’d do tomorrow, I wouldn’t even tell you, I can’t survive today.”
Following a groundbreaking $15 minimum-wage law that just passed in Los Angeles, a pay raise couldn’t come soon enough for New York’s fast-food workers, who earn on average under $16,000 a year. Contrary to stereotypes, most have at least a high school–level education, and more than 85 percent are aged 19 or older.
Back in 2012, the first fast-food-worker activists in New York were ridiculed for demanding a living wage. Now that the call for “15 and a Union” has ricocheted around the world and returned to its home turf, that isn’t just a viable proposal, it seems like low-hanging political fruit: Given the dysfunctional gridlock in Albany, a big wage boost might be seen as a relatively easy populist measure for the Governor, since the wage board lets him bypass the legislature.