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Fast food workers, restaurants brace for state wage board decision

Union workers cheer as New York Governor Andrew

Union workers cheer as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to at a rally in Union Square on May 7, 2015. Cuomo announced that he would create a so-called Wage Board, a move that could allow him to raise the minimum wage without the approval of state lawmakers. The issues surrounding minimum wage workers has become a contentious campaign issue recently with thousands of workers staging protests at fast food restaurants and other retail outlets in recent months. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

The paychecks for nearly 63,000 city fast food workers could change soon, as the state's wage board is expected to recommend raising their minimum hourly salaries.

The three-member board will issue its final recommendation to the state's labor commissioner during a hearing in downtown Manhattan and advocate groups for both the restaurant workers and eateries are predicting the board will push for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Workers rights groups say this will mark a bold step forward in fighting income inequality.

"We're advocating for $15 as soon as possible. They need it today," said Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, a nonprofit workers advocacy group

Some groups representing the restaurants, however, said they hope that the panel will take the owners' needs into account as well.

"We continue to oppose any increase that targets one sector of the industry," said Jay Holland, government affairs coordinator for the New York State Restaurant Association.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo created the panel in May, a month after thousands of fast food workers protested on the streets for a $15 minimum wage, to consider the option of raising the minimum wage just for the 200,000 New York State employees who work in the fast food industry. The board said there are 63,587 fast food employees in New York City.

The minimum wage, which is typically set by the state legislature, is currently $8.75 an hour and set to rise to $9 at the end of the year. Labor Commissioner Mario J. Musolino doesn't need the legislature's approval to increase the fast food workers' minimum wage.

The panel set up public meetings across New York where workers shared stories about their struggles on living on that low of a salary and paying the high costs of the Big Apple.

"I'm 34 years old and I still have to live with my mom," Jorel Ware, of the Bronx, who works at the Times Square McDonald's told amNewYork. "Every day is a struggle and I'm putting in more than 40 hours a week."

McDonald's didn't return a message for comment but in the past has said the majority of its locations are franchises and the owners pay their workers fairly.

Randy Mastro, a former deputy mayor who represents the restaurants, called the wage hike "an irrational and discriminatory race to judgment."

"It targets only fast food franchisees, who in reality, are small business owners ... who are already struggling to survive on low margins," he said in a statement.

Some New Yorkers were keen on the wage raise for those employees. Donna Maldonado, 30. of the East Village said a $6 raise was a small step to compensate their long hours.

"People underestimate how hard these people work, I'm glad they're getting the recognition they deserve," she said.

Other New Yorkers, however, said they didn't think flipping burgers warranted the hike. Brandon Peralta, 20, a server, from Marine Park, said he feared a minimum-wage increase would give the fast food employees less of an incentive to find a better job.

"People say that they can't pay their bills on a fast food salary, but to be fair, fast food salary is not the kind of work nor salary one should want to live on for the rest of their life," he said.

If the wage board recommends to make a raise, it is uncertain when it will be implemented.

Holland, said restaurant owners would like to get a head start so they can make the necessary financial changes to their budgets.

"We believe it should have phased in over time to help businesses prepare for the increase," he said.

Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a senior attorney for the National Employment Law Project, predicted that today's vote will help get the ball rolling for other New York businesses to increase their salaries to meet the higher standard.

"They will have to compete with workers who might want to go to a fast food job that pays higher," she said of other low paying jobs.


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