By Bob Gaydos
When New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo raised the ante on the state’s minimum wage a couple of weeks ago, saying that $15 an hour sounded good to him, he also changed the nature of the political debate about what people get paid.
For those who decide such things — well-paid politicians, usually — no longer is it a question of how little can we get away with paying people to do boring, tiresome jobs we wouldn’t do ourselves, but rather, what constitutes a minimum amount people can actually support themselves on? What’s a minimum livable wage?
With echoes of his late father’s call to take heed that all are included in the fruits of a prospering society, Cuomo did an about-face on the $15-an-hour wage shortly after signing on to that rate as a minimum for fast-food workers in the state. A panel appointed by Cuomo had recommended the $15 minimum and the state labor board agreed. Cuomo made it official. That rate will be phased in over six years.
But that left the state with the somewhat awkward circumstance of largely part-time, fast-food workers earning more than some people working at other, full time jobs in offices, schools, etc. Challenged on this contradiction, Cuomo was quick to recognize it. If $15 an hour is the minimum that fast-food workers need to live in New York without depending on other assistance, it certainly is a fair minimum wage for all workers in the state, he agreed. He said he would urge the state Legislature to approve the increase.
On cue, Republicans went into mock shock at the thought that every New Yorker should be able to earn, not just a wage, but a livable wage. Alluding to the governor’s own comment of a few months ago that a $15-an-hour minimum wage being sought by fast-food workers was “too high” and that $10.50 an hour was more realistic, State Sen. Jack M. Martins, chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, said, “I really don’t know what happened between $10.50 six months ago and $15 now. What’s the significance of $15? In my mind it’s a political number. The governor has not established $15 as a fair number.”
Well, I can’t read the governor’s mind, but let me answer Martins’ question anyway. What happened between $10.50 an hour and $15 is that the Republican-controlled state Senate flatly rejected Cuomo’s request for $10.50 and agreed instead to phase in a raise in the state minimum wage from $8.75 an hour to $9 an hour next year. Apparently, Republicans senators — who are paid a base salary of $79,500 a year and receive a $172 per diem allowance — consider a quarter-an-hour raise to be a major beneficence.
So maybe Cuomo did some calculations, mathematical and, yes, political, and decided it made no sense any more piddling around with proposals for small, incremental increases when the math added up otherwise. At $15 an hour, for a 40-hour week, someone would earn about $31,200 a year. That’s a barely livable wage for someone with a small family, but it’s a lot better than the $21,840 that a $10.50-an-hour salary adds up to.
In fact, that $21,840 is barely above the $20,090 federal poverty level for a family of three, according to government figures used to qualify people for a variety of assistance programs, including Medicaid. The $9-an-hour rate New York legislators generously approved comes to $18,720 for a full time, 40-hour work week. Of course, fast-food franchises typically don’t hire anyone for a 40-hour-week, thereby saving on overtime, insurance, sick pay, vacation and other benefits. The $15-an-hour rate would at least help workers make up for some of those exclusions.
The idea didn’t originate in New York. The cities of Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley have plans in motion to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour. New York would be the first state to do so.
But is it, as Martins questioned, a fair number? Apparently New Yorkers think so. Two recent surveys showed a solid majority of residents in favor of the $15 minimum wage. A Quinnipiac University poll found that 62 percent approved of $15 an hour, with Democrats and Independents favoring it and Republicans opposing. A more recent survey conducted by Siena College found that 59 percent of respondents support an across-the-board $15 minimum wage, while 38 percent oppose it. Again, Republicans were against the rate, Democrats in favor. That speaks volumes about what the two parties stand for.
The business community in New York has, not surprisingly, joined with the restaurant industry in arguing against the $15-an-hour wage. Senator Martins even said many fast-food franchise owners were “scared” of the proposal and worried about their ability to stay open. Cuomo couldn’t say anything about that prospect for political reasons, but I can’t help but think that a few less fast-food establishments would be a major boon for the entire country, reducing obesity and other health problems and lowering health costs along the way, including Medicaid and Medicare expenses.
Business associations have also raised the usual argument that raising the state’s minimum wage would force some employers to cut payrolls. That’s just an argument to keep wages stagnant while profits rise. It also never seems to come up when top executives get huge raises.
In reality, when the wages of the lowest-paid workers are increased, they spend more money on goods and services and depend less on taxpayer-funded government subsidies. The money doesn’t go into offshore accounts. As opposed to the Reaganesque trickle-down GOP fantasy of giving the wealthy tax cuts so that they will invest more in the economy and thereby raise workers’ salaries — never happened, never will — a higher minimum wage actually trickles up through the economy, benefitting everyone.
And for all the doom-and-gloomers accusing Cuomo of playing to the populist mood of the country, there’s also the political reality that Cuomo is not about to casually alienate the state’s business owners. He says the new wage would be phased in over a period of years, allowing businesses to plan. He also says he’d propose tax cuts for businesses (they love that) and look to reduce other burdens (regulations), so that the increase would be affordable.
It sounds fair to me. In fact, it sounds like something I could live with.