This month Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that he will use his executive powers to raise the minimum wage, bypassing the State Legislature where the Republican-led State Senate continues to block an increase.
And the governor will start with fast food – a highly profitable, multibillion-dollar industry that pays unconscionably low wages. Low pay in fast food is causing extreme hardship for the more than 160,000 workers statewide employed by chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, who as a result must rely on public safety net programs at a cost to taxpayers of more than $700 million a year.
In response, the New York State Business Council has argued that state law does not authorize the governor to raise the wage on his own. The Business Council could not be more wrong – wrong on history, wrong on the law and wrong on the facts.
Decades ago the State Legislature vested New York’s labor commissioner with the power to raise the minimum wage in order to take the issue out of politics and ensure that pay increases are based on worker needs, not horse-trading.
The law is clear: If the commissioner determines that “[a]ny substantial number of persons employed in any occupation or occupations are receiving wages insufficient to provide adequate maintenance and to protect their health, he shall appoint a wage board to inquire into and report and recommend adequate minimum wages.”
The commissioner may then issue an order, setting the new state minimum wage for those occupations. Top legal experts including Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and the state Labor Department have confirmed that the statute means what it says and empowers the commissioner to raise pay where current wages are inadequate.
Albany’s current gridlock cries out for the use of these powers. While the GOP State Senate majority has blocked all action on the minimum wage in New York, the rest of the nation is surging ahead. Los Angeles last week became the fifth U.S. city to approve a $15 minimum wage.
Economic modeling shows that the fast-food industry could readily adjust to a $15 minimum wage without causing reductions in employment levels and only modest price adjustments. Growing numbers of business strategists recognize that investing in workers with raises to $15 or more offers significant productivity advantages.
The Business Council’s desperate call to keep control of the minimum wage in the hands of the gridlocked Legislature could not be further from what New Yorkers want. Voters are demanding exactly the sort of leadership to address poverty wages and rising inequality that Cuomo’s bold announcement reflects.
Paul Sonn is the general counsel at the National Employment Law Project.
Read the original piece at The Buffalo News.