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Historic minimum wage opportunity for state wage board

Low wage workers, many in the fast-food industry,

Low wage workers, many in the fast-food industry, join with supporters in front of a McDonald's to demand a minimum wage of $15 an hour on April 15, 2015 in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

The state Wage Board will hold a hearing on Thursday on whether to raise the state's minimum wage for 164,483 fast-food workers -- more than half of whom live in New York City or on Long Island.

As I told the board at its meeting in New York City on Monday, the question should not be if -- but by how much.

According to the state Labor Department, 24,074 men and women work full time or part time in Long Island's 2,315 fast-food restaurants. Those workers earn an average of $16,363 a year -- nowhere near enough to support themselves and their families.

I urged the board to raise the minimum wage not to $10.50 or $11.50 as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed, but all the way to $15 an hour.

This week, 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union marked the 25th anniversary of Justice for Janitors, a successful campaign in to transform a low-wage service industry into one that provides family sustaining jobs. Fast-food workers face many of the same conditions janitors faced back then. Our union has been proud to stand with fast-food workers, airport workers, home-care and other workers as they have lifted their voices to call for $15-an-hour pay and a union.

The fast-food industry is immensely profitable and the men and women who work in it deserve the dignity of a fair wage for their labor. New York State is doing the right thing to address the pressing need for a higher minimum wage for fast-food workers.

Action is urgently needed. New York leads the country in income inequality: A January 2015 report by the Economic Policy Institute ranked it only behind Connecticut. This inequality will only persist in an economy in which many of the jobs being created are low-wage service jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 14.2 percent increase in jobs in "combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food," between 2012 and 2022, making it one of the occupations with the most job growth. Raising wages for fast-food workers will have a significant impact on low-income families throughout the state.

The fast-food industry generates billions of dollars annually in sales and pays billions of dollars in dividends to shareholders. But the men and women who keep the fast-food restaurants running struggle to make ends meet.

For the tens of thousands of fast-food workers in our state, everyday life is a struggle just to get by. I am constantly inspired by personal stories of hardship and perseverance like that of Rebecca Cornick, a 60-year-old Wendy's worker who helps support her five grandchildren, and makes $9 an hour after nine years at Wendy's. Each month she falls further and further behind on the rent, and imagines a different future for her grandchildren, who rely on food stamps.

In a sector as large and profitable as fast food, it is simply wrong that the workers who fuel it are living in poverty. It is appropriate to establish an industrywide standard.

We always hear dire predictions about businesses shutting as Seattle, San Francisco and other jurisdictions adopted more aggressive wage standards; time has proved those predictions to be unfounded. In fact, fast-food employment has grown in San Francisco, San Jose's pace of employment outperformed the rest of California and some Seattle restaurants are expanding.

Raising wage standards also would help drive the economy because people who make more money spend.

When the fast-food workers kicked off their campaign for $15 and a union two years ago, some people thought they were shooting for pie in the sky. Time has proved the critics wrong. New York can make history by being the first state to adopt a $15 mandate for fast-food workers.

The wage board must make that happen.

Hector Figueroa is president of 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union.


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