Seth Wenig / AP

Fast-food workers bring fight to New York state wage board

Board will decide in July whether to recommend pay hike for fast-food workers that could bypass the state legislature

Low-wage restaurant workers and activists rallied and testified before a New York wage board in Manhattan on Monday, demanding that the state raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers.

The meeting, held at New York University, was the second of five public meetings before the board issues a decision in July whether to raise the wage for the state's estimated 180,000 fast-food workers.

Their decision would only apply to fast-food workers and would come after other victories for the labor movement, with minimum wage hikes in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The raises in those cities kick in at the end of the decade.

“We already won. It’s just a matter of time,” said Kenyatta Royster, 30, who attended the rally Monday morning. “The companies just don’t know it yet.”

Royster works at a McDonald's at Columbus Circle, near some of the world’s most expensive apartments. But she said she doesn’t resent the wealthy residents in the neighborhood. Her problem, she said, is with her bosses, the “people who don’t want to pay me.”

Xavier Vega, 25, from Brooklyn, who works alongside Royster, said that with his low wages, he is sometimes forced to make hard decisions — including whether to buy food or subway fare. “Do I go to work and not eat, or do I not go to work and get in trouble?” Vega said.

Dozens of fast-food workers told the wage board representatives about the difficulties of getting by on $8.75 an hour, the state’s current minimum wage. Unable to afford New York City's rents and high cost of living, a few individuals described the embarrassment of being forced to rely on public assistance. 

“It’s not fair that I work so hard and I need help to cover my necessities,” said Jose Carillo, an 82-year-old McDonald’s employee, speaking in Spanish through a translator. “Our lives depend on having a fair salary.”  

For its part, the restaurant industry maintains that an increase in wages will force fast-food franchise owners, many of which operate on slim margins, to lay off workers and increase automation.

Melissa Autilio Fleischut, the president of the New York State Restaurant Association, said she expects the board to raise wages, but fears just how fast and high the change will be. “What we’re concerned about is how quickly is the wage board going to increase the wages,” Fleischut said.

Shantel Walker, 33, testified before the wage board on Monday. She told Al Jazeera that she could not make ends meet on an $8.75 hourly wage at Papa John's, but that she's confident New York state will raise the rate of pay soon.
Wilson Dizard

While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was successful in raising the state minimum wage to its current level in 2013, the legislature rebuffed his most recent budgetary attempt in January to raise the wage to $10.50 per hour across the state and $11.50 per hour in New York City.

Last month, Cuomo announced his intention to create a state wage board that could bypass the state legislature and recommend a pay hike for a specific sector – in this case the fast-food industry.

The wage board would mandate the change through executive action, but it remains unclear what the board will recommend and what kinds of workers will qualify, causing uncertainty for the industry, Fleischut said. 

“This isn’t really going to impact corporate CEOs like they think it will. Most of these restaurant owners in New York State are franchise owners. I think it singles them out in the marketplace, and they’re concerned how dramatic this will be,” she said.

But not every one in the business community agrees. Nick Hanauer, a Seattle venture capitalist, told the board that the fast-food industry's talk of jobs disappearing and businesses shuttering is nothing more than a “scam, a con job and an intimidation tactic.”

Hanauer, who invests in technology and software companies, compared fast-food companies to parasites, which leech off other industries that pay their workers a living wage. Public assistance, he argues, has become a subsidy for an industry that fails to adequately compensate it workers.

“Who wouldn’t want a deal where I get to pay my workers poverty wages, but everybody else pays their workers fair wages?,” he said. “[Fast-food] workers require public subsidies to survive, while everybody else’s workers pay taxes and provide those subsidies.”

But increasing pay would let workers buy more from stores in their communities, he said, thus lifting the overall economy.

Lieutenant Gov. Kathy Hochul, who attended Monday’s rally, told Al Jazeera that there is no timeline for increasing fast-food wages until the stage board endorses such a change, which it would not do until July.

Meanwhile, Monday’s demonstrations brought workers together from across the country and from different workplaces. Former Papa John’s pizza maker Shantel Walker, 33, said she felt the protests have built a community of workers and forced management to treat them with more respect.

“They understand I’m going to do what it takes to win. I’m very optimistic,” she said, sporting a shirt that read, “I WILL NOT LOSE.”

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