A packed hearing of a special New York State Wage Board today in the City Council chamber in Buffalo saw dozens of workers, advocates and supporters testify in support of a $15 per hour wage floor for the state’s fast-food industry, which employs about 180,000 workers. Today’s hearing was the first of four to be convened this month, in response to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s dramatic call for the state to take action to raise fast-food workers’ wages.
Governor-appointed wage boards, under state law, are empowered to recommend the issuance of wage orders to increase minimum wage rates statewide as well as in specific industries and regions, even in the absence of legislative action. A similar wage board process last year produced an order to raise tipped restaurant and service workers’ minimum wage to $7.50 at the end of 2015, and to study the feasibility of eliminating altogether the subminimum wage for tipped workers in the state.
Fast-food workers from across upstate New York were among those who testified at today’s hearing, cheered on by a crowd of co-workers and supporters. Several of the workers said they risked losing their jobs to employer retaliation for speaking up, but that they’d done so before by participating in a series of one-day strikes led by the “Fight for 15” campaign.
One of these workers was Crescenzo Scipione, a 23-year-old Burger King worker from Rochester, New York, who is paid $8.75 per hour and whose riveting testimony (excerpted below) captured the attention of the Wage Board members and the entire audience.
“I am part of a generation that entered the job market just in time for the Great Recession to hit,” Scipione said. “My parents are aging and will need care I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to provide. There is little hope for many workers my age, so little in fact that we don’t even think about the hopelessness as unusual. It should be obvious to everyone here that there is little more dangerous to the integrity of a society than widespread poverty and hopelessness.”
“By going out on strike 9 times over the past 2.5 years, we fast food workers have made it clear that $15/hour and union rights are the least our bosses can do to provide any measure of economic justice to their workers and their communities. We are poor. And we are all tired of being poor. We are so tired of it that hundreds and thousands of us across the country risked our jobs to stand up for ourselves and each other in a wave of low-wage strikes that were called “crazy” until pretty recently.”
“A wage of $15 an hour would allow me to plan for the future, to save for future expenses, to perhaps enjoy housing or food that aren’t substandard. To raise a family one day; to be able to help and provide for my family, my partner, and my community the way a man ought to; to live with dignity by working. These are the most basic American aspirations. And if these can continue to be sacrificed at the altar of endlessly escalating corporate greed, then we are not free. We are not free when our bosses tell us to treat burns with butter, we are not free when we can be fired for any reason at any time by racist or homophobic or just plain unfair bosses. We are not free when our work makes billions in profits for those who don’t work the friers, don’t mop the grease, and still dictate our poverty.”
Scipione concluded by calling on the Wage Board to recommend a $15 minimum wage for the state’s fast-food workers, saying “it is the least you can do. Prove to us, to the working poor of New York, that government works for those of us who live in poverty.”
Irene Tung, senior policy researcher at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), was among the featured experts who testified in support of a $15 minimum wage for New York’s fast-food workers, saying that research points to the ability of the industry to adjust to a $15 wage floor without hurting either business profits or employment.
“The fast food industry can readily accommodate giving front-line workers a raise. In fact, it may not even need to reduce profits to do so,” Tung stated in her testimony. “According to a University of Massachusetts study released earlier this year, the U.S. fast food industry could fully accommodate a $15 minimum wage for workers without by garnering savings from reduced staff turnover and increased revenue from a modest price increase. The study shows that the industry would not need to reduce either profit or employment levels.”
A data analysis released today by NELP highlights the stark disparity between the rapid growth of fast-food corporate profits and industry employment on the one hand, and the decline in real wages experienced in recent years by fast-food workers on the other.
Additional Wage Board hearings are scheduled later this month in New York City, Long Island and Albany.