Fight for $15 Victories Will Benefit More Than Just Fast-Food Workers

Employees in retail, health care, and other sectors will see their pay increase in California and New York.
Low-wage workers and supporters protest for a $15 an hour minimum wage in New York City's Foley Square on Nov. 10, 2015. (Photo: Cem Ozdel/Getty Images)
Apr 1, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

For more than three years after the first fast-food employees walked off the job in New York City on Nov. 29, 2012, no state adopted the $15 minimum wage the striking workers were calling for. Now, in the course of just a few days, two of the largest U.S. states have all but committed to implementing a $15 wage for all workers.

After reaching a compromise with labor groups on Sunday, California lawmakers voted on a bill to step wages up to $15 by 2022, which Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign next Monday. Starting in 2024, the California state minimum wage will be pegged to the consumer price index, with a maxiumum annual increase of 3.5 percent.

And late Thursday night in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a deal to include a phased-in wage increase in the new budget that will hit $15 in most parts of the state. New York City will have a $15 minimum wage by the end of 2018, while the wage will jump 70 cents each year for five years in areas north of Westchester County, bringing it from $9 to $12.50 by 2020—and on to $15 in the following years, provided the state economic outlook remains positive. In Long Island and Westchester counties, the minimum wage will hit $15 in about six years. It appears that the wage increases will not apply to workers who earn tips, such as restaurant servers, who will continue to earn a minimum of $7.50 an hour. The budget deal also includes a new 12-week paid family leave program, the most generous in the U.S. Both the California and New York laws allow for the wage increases to be halted if the economy falters.

The pair of bills mark not only significant policy victories for the Fight for $15 but an opportunity to expand its geography: Unlike Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, which are all on their way to $15 wages locally, the statewide bills will extend higher pay to people living in rural areas and small towns too.

RELATED: The Fight for $15 Changed How We Talk About—and Raise—the Minimum Wage

“Many workers in the retail industry are going to benefit, from the non-union grocery workers to the people who sell you clothes at Zara,” said James Araby, executive director of the UFCW Western States Council, a union representing 200,000 food and retail workers in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. “The folks that people interact with when they’re shopping on a day-to-day basis are going to benefit tremendously from this.”

If the state minimum was increased to $15 by 2023, a year later than proposed in the California law, 5.6 million workers would see their wages increase by an average of 24 percent, according to a brief published Thursday by a UC Berkeley economist. After New York’s increases are phased in, nearly one in three workers will have seen their pay rise by more than $4,000 a year.

The minimum wage hike will help more than the fast-food and retail workers many consumers encounter and more than just those making minimum wage. There are other “workers in the shadows,” as Araby characterized them, who will benefit.

For example, Amazon’s fulfillment centers have expanded across so many millions of square feet of warehouse space in California cities like San Bernardino and Redlands that some Inland Empire residents now call the area Amazon Empire. Amazon warehouse workers earn a median hourly wage of $13.50, and the company is building a 1.1 million-square-foot facility—its fifth in the Inland Empire—that will employ 1,000 full-time workers. Even at $13.50—still higher than the law raises the minimum wage in the next year, when the facility is expected to open—those jobs will be a boon for residents in a part of the state that has yet to fully rebound from the Great Recession, and even more so as wages creep upward in the coming years.

In New York, where health care is the second-largest industry after financial services, home care workers earning $10 an hour—a dollar more than the current state minimum—will see their wages rise. According to 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which was involved in pushing for the state wage law, more than half of the 300,000 home care workers in the state receive public assistance, and 30 percent are on food stamps.

“The $15 minimum wage means I’ll have a little room to breathe and provide for my family,” Lisa Johnson, a home care worker from Queens, said in a statement from the union. “I’m trying to raise four kids on $10 an hour, so sometimes I have to work seven-day weeks and occasionally 22-hour days.” Even so, her kids get health insurance through Medicare, and she occasionally has to use food stamps to keep her family fed—meaning that by holding wages down, some private industry is effectively offloading its costs onto taxpayers.

Owing to the phased increases, it will take time to see if the loss of jobs and move toward automation promised by some in the business community will come to pass. Projections from the Labor Center at UC Berkeley for employment in New York state estimate a net gain in employment by mid-2021, but at a slightly lower rate than would otherwise be expected. However, the researcher concluded, the “improvement in living standards would greatly outweigh the small effect on employment.”