About 400 people, many of them calling for a raise in the state's minimum wage to $15 per hour, turned out for a public hearing Thursday in Garden City.
The five-hour session was held by a state panel empowered by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to recommend higher salaries for fast-food workers, exclusively. They now earn at least the state minimum wage of $8.75 per hour.
The fast-food wage board listened to employees of Taco Bell, Nathan's Famous hot dogs, Boston Market and other restaurant chains recount their struggles to live on high-cost Long Island. A Hofstra University professor said they would need to earn more than $22 per hour to survive here without public assistance.
While most of the speakers called for a pay increase, two owners of Wendy's restaurants predicted a pay raise would depress sales and lead to fewer working hours for employees.
Veronica Ramos, a shift manager at a local McDonald's, said, "I have been working for 11 years, and McDonald's has gotten richer while I only have $300 a week to live on."
The 35-year-old employee and her sister share lodgings that exhaust three of Ramos' four paychecks per month. "We are living under some kind of slavery," she said through a translator. "Fifteen dollars an hour is what we need . . . We just want to survive."
However, that higher pay rate isn't enough for adults to support themselves, according to the testimony of several experts.
Gregory DeFreitas, an economist at Hofstra University, estimated a single adult needs to earn $35,500 a year to be self-sufficient on Long Island. That means an employee with a weekly schedule of 30 hours must earn $22.53 per hour.
He and Michael Reich, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, said a raise to $15 an hour wouldn't cause restaurants to close or to fire workers. Reich predicted at the hearing, held at Nassau Community College, that food prices would rise 2 percent to 2.5 percent.
Some restaurant owners disagreed.
Thomas Spero, who purchased four local Wendy's in March 2014, said he would have to add 50 cents to some $1 items and increase the price of combination meals by 10 percent to 15 percent.
"It's not possible because I won't be competitive with other restaurants," said Spero, 57, of Stony Brook, who has always worked in fast food.
"I feel for the workers," he said. "But raising the wage would increase my expenses by $25,000 per week, and I don't make that in a week."
The Island is home to more than 24,000 people who work part time and full time at 2,315 fast-food restaurants.
The wage board will hold the last of four public hearings Monday in Albany before it makes recommendations next month to acting state Labor Commissioner Mario J. Musolino. He can implement the board's pay proposal without approval from the State Legislature.
The board is led by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, with business representative Kevin Ryan of online retailer Gilt, and labor representative Mike Fishman of the Service Employees International Union. Ryan did not attend the hearing.