For Patricia O’Hara, 55, a home health care worker, a $15 minimum wage might mean no longer having to choose between paying a bill and buying food. Shantel Walker, 35, a restaurant employee, will be able to afford a trip to visit relatives outside of New York City.
This is how the lives of some workers who take home the smallest paychecks will change as a result of the increase in the state’s minimum wage signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo Monday at a Manhattan rally that included organizers of the Fight for 15 movement and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Sen. Bernie Sanders was not present, though the issue has been a mainstay of his campaign.
The change won’t happen overnight. In NYC, the minimum rises slightly each year from $9 now to $15 on Dec. 31, 2018, at large businesses, on Dec. 31, 2019, at small ones. Long Island and Westchester reach $15 Dec. 31, 2021. Upstate, where the economy is struggling, the top of $12.50 is reached Dec. 31, 2020. Concerns expressed by small businesses are understandable. But there is an escape valve in three years to adjust the formula if the economy stalls.
The battle for a $15 minimum wage, once nearly impossible to imagine, got a burst of attention when some 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City in 2012, saying that something had to change. This progressive groundswell was eventually taken up by Cuomo, a moderate Democrat, in addition to Clinton.
The candidate, who backs a $12 federal minimum wage and local increases on top of that, praised Cuomo’s practical centrist work. At first, Cuomo wanted to unilaterally push through a minimum-wage increase for state employees and fast-food workers. The decision to include the legislature in the process allowed workers statewide to benefit, while regional concerns could also be taken into account.
Senate Republicans, many of whom faced considerable opposition in their home districts, did the right thing and voted to help the working poor. But demands for an increase would have flamed out without sustained pressure from groups concerned that rewards in our economy have become unbalanced.