Fast-Food Workers Have Won the Wage Fight in New York

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is calling for a minimum-wage increase for all workers.

(Photo: Flickr)

Sep 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Fast-food workers in New York state are getting a big raise. On Sept. 10, New York accepted a wage board’s recommendation to raise the pay of fast-food employees to $15 an hour by 2021. Like many low-wage workers, these employees have been struggling to make ends meet at a minimum wage of roughly $8 an hour—which amounts to an average annual income of $16,920. Half of all fast-food workers are over the age of 23, according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and nearly a quarter of all employees have at least one child.

But chain restaurants aren’t the only place where minimum-wage workers are struggling. While some 200,000 fast-food workers in the state—the raise applies to employees of chains with 30 or more locations—are set to benefit from the wage hike, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Thursday that he wants a state minimum wage of $15 an hour, which would benefit nearly 3 million residents.

“A study was released just this week that showed that there is not a single neighborhood in New York City that is affordable to someone earning the minimum wage,” said Cuomo, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, in a Thursday press conference featuring plenty of blue-collar Bruce Springsteen anthems.

“The truth is, it’s wrong to have an economy where the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, where the American dream of mobility and opportunity has become more of a cruel myth,” Cuomo continued. Though cities including Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are phasing in a $15 local minimum wage, New York would be the first to adopt the policy statewide if the measure passes.

The fast-food wage increase won’t just affect employees’ paychecks but those of New York taxpayers as well. Sixty percent of fast-food workers in New York are enrolled in one or more public assistance programs. Nationally, almost half of all fast-food jobs provide only 20 to 35 hours a week of employment, and only 13 percent of employees receive health benefits.

This industry has been at the forefront of efforts to raise the minimum wage since the first protest for a $15 minimum wage took place in New York City in 2012. Roughly 200 workers from McDonald’s, KFC, and other chains went on strike, sparking what would become a national movement.

In three years, the public has come a long way from insisting that only teens or college students working over the summer take minimum-wage jobs at fast-food joints. As a 2013 report from the UC Berkeley Labor Center found, “The restaurants and food services sector has the highest public program participation rate of any industry.” Funding the public assistance programs that more than half of fast-food workers are enrolled in—more than twice the rate of the average American worker—costs $7 billion annually.

With more workers in low-wage jobs across the board in the wake of the Great Recession, the $15 wage fast-food workers have been fighting for has become the benchmark for a new minimum wage among progressives—and a talking point in the run-up to the 2016 presidential primaries.

In July, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who hopes to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2016, introduced a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15. While Hillary Clinton has supported local efforts to raise wages, her position on a federal policy remains unclear. Donald Trump told MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “I think having a low minimum wage is not a bad thing for this country.” Meanwhile, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker have stated that they don’t believe a minimum wage is necessary at all.

Businesses including McDonald’s and Panera have responded to the threat of increased personnel costs by adopting touch-screen kiosks to replace cashiers. Fast food is just one of many food-service sectors worried about a higher minimum wage. Some restaurant owners who typically pay front-of-house employees such as servers and bartenders a reduced “tipped wage” also worry about the effect of an increase to payroll.

But the fast-food workers who have been fighting for higher wages see the New York proposal for a $15 state minimum wage as a sea change.

“When we first went on strike three years ago, nobody gave us a shot to win $15,” Alvin Major, who works at a KFC in Brooklyn and is a member of the National Organizing Committee of the Fight for $15, said in a press release. “But we stuck together, went on nine more strikes, and even got arrested. Our voices were heard. Gov Cuomo heard us; Vice President Biden heard us; and workers all over the country heard us, joining together in what has become an unstoppable movement that is changing lives and changing the country.”