When the calendar turned to 2014, hundreds of thousands of workers in New York rang in the New Year with a raise. Thanks to a deal reached by legislators in March 2013, the minimum wage increased from $7.25 an hour to $8.00 an hour on January 1st and will increase in phases until it reaches $9.00 at the start of 2016. It was a positive step for the millions of workers and their families who will benefit from the deal.
A positive step, but not nearly enough.
New York is well behind the curve when it comes to providing meaningful increases to the minimum wage. California’s minimum wage will increase to $9.00 an hour in July of this year before going to $10.00 an hour on January 1, 2016. Several other states have proposed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $10.00 or higher. In many states, the minimum wage rises automatically every year to adjust for inflation.
Indexing the minimum wage to inflation was a key component of the original deal being worked on in Albany. However, in the negotiation process, indexing was left out, meaning the $9.00 an hour we reach in 2016 will be around for as long as it takes lawmakers to make another change.
Last year’s compromise also failed to provide an increase in the minimum wage for most tipped workers. Employees in food services remain at $5.00 an hour while service employees remain at $5.65 an hour. These workers are forced to rely on tips – an unreliable source of income – just to help them reach the minimum wage. The deal required the Governor to convene a wage board to settle on an increase for tipped workers. So far, that board has not been convened.
In California and six other states, tipped workers receive the same minimum wage as all other workers. California is also among a handful of states that allow cities to enact their own minimum wage laws. In San Francisco, the minimum wage is $10.74 an hour, and rises every year in relation to changes in the consumer price index. The new mayor of Seattle is moving forward with plans to enact a $15.00 an hour minimum wage for city workers, with a panel investigating the effects of a citywide $15.00 an hour minimum wage.
So the question is: what is New York waiting for?
In 2013, there was an explosion of workers across the country striking in protest of low wages at major fast-food restaurants and retailers. The issue of income inequality has become one of the defining political and policy issues of our time. The country continues to figure its way out of a massive recession – one from which the wealthiest have fully recovered, but the middle and working class continue to feel the effects. Increasingly, working full-time is no guarantee out of poverty or even homelessness. Despite this, New York continues on a timid path.
State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has announced that he will propose legislation increasing New York’s minimum wage to $9.00 an hour by 2015 – a year ahead of schedule – and having it indexed for inflation. Democrats in Washington are uniting behind a proposal – supported by President Obama – that would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 over the next two years with indexing for inflation.
Workers in New York are hopeful that momentum will continue to build. Between the courageous protests of fast-food and retail workers, the support of President Obama and Democrats in Washington, or the embarrassment of being left so far behind cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, perhaps legislators in Albany will feel compelled to act. Or maybe Mayor de Blasio will ratchet up the pressure from within, in recognition of the fact that New York City needs its own minimum wage if Albany stands pat. The fate of millions of workers hangs in the balance.