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New York's path to $15 minimum wage is wrongheaded

Labor leaders, workers and activists attend a rally

Labor leaders, workers and activists attend a rally for a $15 minimum hourly wage on July 22, 2015 in New York City. Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

Of all the ways to settle the battle in New York over the minimum wage, it's hard to imagine a worse solution than having an unelected board bypass the State Legislature to advocate a sharp increase to $15 an hour statewide and limit the increase to just fast-food workers.

Yet that's what the state wage board, empaneled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, did Wednesday. It now needs only the apparently certain approval of the state labor commissioner.

In New York City, the $15 minimum would be reached, gradually, by 2018. Phased increases would get to the rest of the state in July 2021. The phased-in nature of the hikes might be tolerable, at least downstate, but the exclusive nature of the new minimum and the process by which it will likely be approved are not.

Some cities, most recently Los Angeles, have increased their minimum to $15, so that's become a benchmark. And the California university system said Wednesday that its employees would be paid at least $15 an hour within three years, further bolstering the credibility of the figure. But no state has anything like a $15 minimum wage: The highest is Washington at $9.47. And having a minimum wage set for just one industry is unusual, and rightly so.

What sense does it make to decide, as the board did, that fast-food workers of chains with more than 30 locations deserve so much more money than many retail workers, security workers, landscapers, hotel maids and dozens of other types of employees who toil for low wages? Why does the rule ignore the reality that while there are thousands of Burger Kings and Subways, some operators forced to pay the $15 might own just one?

The most ludicrous aspect of the decision is that while it applies to one industry segment, it is statewide. So the minimum pay for a McDonald's worker in Onondaga County will be $15, but the minimum for a drugstore employee in Manhattan, unless the law changes, will be $9.

Cuomo and the State Legislature agreed in 2013 on three separate increases to take the state minimum wage to $9 by 2016. That rate is essentially in line with the historical national minimum wage, adjusted for inflation. It's a sensible statewide floor that ought to be higher in New York City and its suburbs to reflect the higher cost of living here, and it ought to be indexed to inflation to increase automatically as prices do.

But more than doubling the minimum from its 2013 level of $7.25 in just a few years could disrupt prices, hiring, businesses and consumers. Doing it via a wage board isn't in line with past practice in New York. And because wage boards in New York generally have set the pay only of tipped workers, who are covered under a separate minimum wage law, the decision might be challenged in court. Moreover, the action wouldn't fix the cause of the constant minimum-wage wrangling in New York: the fact that the minimum is not indexed to inflation and adjusted automatically each year.

There is a strong argument for increasing the minimum wage. But doing it this way is a bad idea.


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