Democrat & Chronicle: "It's well past time that New York permanently fixed its minimum wage standards | Opinion"

Date: March 1, 2023

Harry B. Bronson | March 1, 2023

New Yorkers are experiencing the greatest cost-of-living crisis in 40 years. The minimum wage in upstate New York has yet to reach $15 compared to New York City, which has been frozen at $15 for years. With record high costs, families are not earning enough to put food on the table, make rent, and pay for utilities. As the owner of a small business in Rochester, I see firsthand the impact New York’s depreciated minimum wage has on both workers’ livelihood and their ability to spend at local businesses. Now is the moment for New York lawmakers to respond to this crisis with the urgency it deserves. Unfortunately, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan fails to meet the moment.

In her state budget proposal, Hochul outlines a plan to “index” the minimum wage so it automatically rises with the cost of living every year. While I fully support indexing wages, $15 can’t be the starting point. New York’s workers need a significant raise first — a restoration of what $15 would be worth if the minimum wage had been adjusted with rising costs when it was first signed into law. To do that we should pass the Raise the Wage Act to restore the minimum wage to $21.25, and then index it going forward so it doesn’t fall behind again.

The difference between the two proposals is substantial. The Raise the Wage Act would benefit 2.9 million workers with an average annual raise of $3,300, or $63 a week. The governor’s proposal is projected to deliver annual raises of about $670, or $13 a week, to only 900,000 workers. As many as 2 million fewer workers would benefit from the governor’s proposal, and they would receive $2,600 less in annual raises than under the Raise the Wage Act. $2,600 is rent, it’s utilities during the winter month, it’s part-time childcare.

The Raise the Wage Act, sponsored by my colleague in the Assembly, Labor Chair Latoya Joyner, would have a similar impact to New York’s historic 2016 $15 minimum wage legislation — which raised pay for 1 in 3 workers by more than $4,000 a year. Studies consistently show that the Fight for $15 raised wages broadly, led to historic reductions in poverty, and did all of that without hurting jobs—both in upstate and downstate New York.

The Partnership for the Public Good and Cornell University studied the effects of a $21.25 minimum wage in Western New York. The median living wage for a parent of one child is $31.54, more than twice the area’s current minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage and adjusting it to rising costs and worker productivity would have a substantial impact on the ability of workers earning New York’s current depreciated minimum wage to afford basic necessities. With higher wages, workers would gain access to better childcare, healthcare, and education, and have more money in their pockets to spend at their local businesses.

A new report published by the Institute of Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley analyzed the effects of New York’s $15 minimum wage for fast food workers — which is already $15 an hour state-wide, including in upstate. The study found that in both upstate and down, New York’s fast food industry grew at least as fast or faster than in states that didn’t raise the minimum wage. Since fast food is one of the most underpaid occupations, it’s the first place opponents argue that there would be any negative effects—but there were none. The success of the $15 minimum wage for upstate fast food workers shows that upstate’s economy needs and can sustain a much higher minimum wage.

But $15 doesn’t buy what it used to and upstate workers now need $21.25 by 2027. And contrary to the fovernor’s suggestion that the minimum wage is primarily a concern for youth employment, 95% of workers earning the minimum wage are adults 20 or older, and 28% are parents of young children. A $21.25 minimum wage would raise pay for more than one million upstate workers – 42% of whom currently live below the poverty line. These are our neighbors, essential workers, the backbone of our communities. Raising the minimum wage affects all of us.

And the Raise the Wage Act is incredibly popular across political party lines. Data For Progress released a poll that shows 80% of New York voters — 89% of Democrats, 82% of Independents, and and 65% of Republicans — support legislation to raise the minimum wage to $21.25, and then introduce automatic increases each year after that.

Hochul’s proposal to tie the minimum wage to rising costs is a good start. But if we don’t raise the minimum wage to $21.25 before indexing it, we will be locking in wages that are insufficient for the workers who keep our cities and state running to make ends meet. Instead, let’s stand with workers, like the ones in my coffee shop, unions, and advocates to lift up 2.9 million workers across our state. They deserve not a cent less.

Assemblyman Harry B. Bronson, a Democrat, represents the 138th Legislative District, which includes includes parts of of Rochester and the suburban and rural towns of Henrietta and Chili.

Read the article on Democrat & Chronicle's website, here.