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Gov. Cuomo seeks state legislature bypass in New York fast-food wage fight

Labor campaigns hail creation of wage board as a positive first step in fight to increase low wages

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo intends to create a state wage board to force through a minimum pay hike for fast-food workers without legislative approval — a development welcomed as a first step by wage activists.

In an op-ed in the New York Times on Wednesday laden with historical analogues and the broad theme of fighting economic inequality, Cuomo wrote of his intention to ask the New York state labor commissioner to put in place a panel “to examine the minimum wage in the fast-food industry.

“Through the Wage Board, New York can set fast-food workers on a path out of poverty, ease the burden on taxpayers and create a new national standard,” he wrote.

The use of a wage board to raise pay outside of the legislature has precedent, including under Cuomo’s own tenure: earlier this year, the state’s labor commissioner raised the wage of tipped workers to $7.50 per hour, an increase that will go into effect later this year.

Cuomo previously raised the general state minimum wage in 2013 to $8.75 per hour, but his intention in his January budget to raise the wage to $11.50 per hour was rejected the state legislature.

Prompted by that decision, the governor is now seeking a way to raise wages by other means. 

Cuomo was set to instruct the labor commissioner to start investigating the issue on Thursday, and if in several months the wage board determined fast-food wages were insufficient, the New York governor indicated its recommendations could become state law without the legislature’s involvement.

Cuomo’s decision was likely spurred by national and state labor organizing efforts in the past three years demanding higher wages for workers in the fast-food industry to as much as $15 per hour, as well as the ability to unionize.

"Some argue that we can close the income gap by pulling down the top," Cuomo wrote. "I believe we should do it by lifting up the bottom. We can begin by raising labor standards, starting with the minimum wage."

Cuomo connected the fight for increasing fast-food wages to the state legislature’s reluctance to act on the general minimum wage issue in his January budget, though it is not clear whether legislators could have supported a standalone effort to raise wages in that specific industry.

Still, the action will likely be seen as a boon for labor campaigns that have sought to elevate the issue of low wages into a major national issue worthy of urgent political attention. And labor groups are likely to urge Gov. Cuomo to use his executive authority through a wage board to go beyond just fast-food workers.

“Wage orders may raise the wage for specific occupations, or for all occupations in the state … if the Governor determines that conditions so warrant,” read a fact sheet released by the National Employment Law Project, which supports increased protections and higher wages for workers.

Fight for $15, a fast-food labor campaign that has been heavily involved in the fast-food campaign since its inception in New York in 2012, hailed Cuomo’s Wednesday op-ed as partial vindication of their efforts. “This is what happens when workers join together, go on strike and demand $15,” the campaign’s website said.

The campaign launched a protest last month to raise fast-food wages in 200 U.S. cities and more than 40 countries.

Business interests, both in New York state and nationally, have fought tooth and nail to try and stem the gains made by various minimum wage campaigns.

“Singling out a sector of one industry to have a higher minimum wage than all other occupations is unfair and arbitrary," said Melissa Fleischut, President & CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, a lobbying group for the restaurant business, in reaction to Cuomo’s intentions. "The minimum wage is rightfully set by the legislature and should affect all businesses equally."

Meanwhile, campaigns to increase the broader minimum wage have made gains across the country in recent years.

Last month, Seattle put into effect a 2014 minimum wage law that will ultimately see per-hour pay rise to $15, the largest of any major U.S. city.

Last year, San Francisco voter approved a ballot measure that would see the city’s minimum wage increase to $15 per hour by 2018.

And on Tuesday, neighboring Emmeryville, in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, gave initial approval to a measure that would set the baseline pay at $16 per hour by 2019. The community of about 10,000 will decide whether that initiative receives final approval in a final May 19 vote.

"Just as our workers are creative enough to make a living off of minimum wage and support their families, I think our businesses will be creative enough to make it work and we'll all lift up together," Emmeryville City Councilwoman Dianne Martinez said at the meeting on Tuesday.

With Reuters

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