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$15 an hour for fast-food workers: NY wage panel

Fast-food workers and supporters rally on Wednesday morning,

Fast-food workers and supporters rally on Wednesday morning, July 22, 2015, outside a McDonald's on Old Country Road in Westbury demanding a $15 per hour wage for all fast-food workers in New York State. Credit: David L. Pokress

Fast-food workers at chains in New York State would earn a minimum wage of $15 an hour by 2021, a raise of up to 70 percent, under recommendations issued Wednesday by a state panel and quickly endorsed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Employees of Wendy's, Subway, Panera Bread and other chains now earn the state minimum wage of $8.75 per hour or more.

The state fast-food wage board advised Wednesday that the pay increase be implemented in stages. The final $15-an-hour wage rate would go into effect in New York City on Dec. 31, 2018, and in the rest of New York State on July 1, 2021.

The changes would be limited to chains with 30 or more locations across the country.

At a rally outside the Manhattan building where the board had convened, Cuomo called on the State Legislature to increase the state minimum wage beyond $9 per hour -- the rate set to go into effect at year's end.

"This is not the ending; it is just the beginning because we will not stop until we reach true economic justice and we raise the minimum wage for every worker in every job in this state," he told about 200 cheering fast-food employees and union activists.

The push for higher salaries in New York State is part of a national drive to boost the federal minimum wage, which is now $7.25 per hour, and to address income inequality. Wednesday, the University of California system announced it would raise wages on its 10 campuses to a minimum of $15 per hour. And on Tuesday, Los Angeles County, the nation's most populous county, passed a law increasing hourly pay to at least $15 over five years.

Seattle and San Francisco have also legislated a $15 minimum wage in steps.

At the Manhattan rally, Cuomo and other Democrats vowed to make New York the first state to adopt a $15-per-hour minimum wage. State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said, "We're going to get to $15 before any other state."

The New York wage panel was appointed in May at the behest of Cuomo after his proposal for an across-the-board increase in the minimum wage was scuttled by the Republican majority in the State Senate.

The state's acting labor commissioner, Mario J. Musolino, has 45 days to decide whether to accept, reject or amend the wage board's recommendations.

Cuomo was clear about what action he would like to see. "The labor commissioner will review the work of the wage board but I think there is no doubt we are headed in the right direction," he said.

At the 35-minute meeting of the wage board, its labor representative Michael Fishman, of the Service Employees International Union, said government sometimes has to intervene when private businesses don't adequately compensate workers.

"The fast-food industry has not kept up with other industries" in terms of pay, he said.

The board said it took into account that employers would need time to adjust to the new wage rate. "Our businesses have to be successful and if they are not successful, there won't be any jobs," said Kevin Ryan of the online retailer, the board's business representative.

The board's recommendations were approved unanimously by its three members.

Some state lawmakers, notably GOP state senators, were displeased, saying their authority had been undermined.

One local senator, who requested anonymity, said he and some of his colleagues believe the minimum wage can only be set by legislation.

Owners of chain eateries were concerned about the pay hike's impact.

Long Islander Jack Bert, a McDonald's franchisee and chairman of a regional operators group, said his industry was being "unfairly targeted" and the $15 wage rate would put him "at a competitive disadvantage" with other eating establishments.

Nassau and Suffolk counties are home to more than 2,300 fast-food restaurants, according to a report from the state Department of Labor. Together, they employ more than 24,000 people who earn on average $16,363 a year.

McDonald's worker Yancy Rivera said Wednesday the pay raise would improve her life and that of her two children.

"I cannot believe what the wage board did; I'm so happy," she said through a translator.

Rivera, 35, has worked at a local McDonald's for 11 years. The Nassau County resident earns $9.50 per hour.

She recalled asking her supervisor for a raise and being told she didn't deserve one.

"Now my boss will have to give me a raise whether he likes it or not," Rivera said after the wage board's decision.

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