Wage boost for New York fast food workers

The policy will see the wages of 180,000 fast food workers almost double

A decision by the New York Fast Food Wage Board to raise the wages of tens of thousands of workers in fast food operations has proved controversial.

Spearheaded by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, the New York Wage Board approved the change last week. It comes after a sustained campaign for $15 wages by those in low-paid jobs in the US.

If, as expected, the change is adapted by the state’s labour commissioner it will make New York the fourth state in the US to approve a $15 wage – a rate of pay that has been the target of the Fight for 15 demonstrations throughout the country.

The wage increase will affect chains with more than 30 outlets nationwide, including Burger King, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Shake Shack. It will also apply to franchises so an independently owned fast food restaurant will also have to increase worker pay. The current rate of pay for those workers is the minimum wage, which stands at $8.75 so the change represents a massive 71% increase. The increase will happen gradually, starting on 31 December this year and hitting $15 by 2018 for New York City and by 2021 for the rest of the state.

The move is designed to improve the living standards of chain restaurant staff whose wages are so low that many still rely on welfare program subsidies.

Governor Cuomo said the policy goes beyond the issue of wages as he targets social and economic equality in the state. “This is really about who we are as New Yorkers and what we believe,” he said. “We believe there should be opportunity for all and there is fundamental fairness for all and there is justice for all.”

Fast food operators have reacted with incredulity that they have been singled out for the rise. Low paid workers in other sectors will not benefit from this increase. Many businesses have indicated that the cost of the wage increase could be passed on to consumers through price rises.

Other cities that have raised minimum wage – Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco – have broadened it to include all of the lowest paid workers, not just those working in fast food.  The issue of low pay and increasing the federal minimum wage is set to be one of the key points in the upcoming presidential election.

Cuomo had previously attempted to raise the minimum wage for all to $10.50, but was blocked by the State Senate. This led to him focusing on fast food workers and question whether the wages paid to them are sufficient to provide for the life and health of those workers. Evidently, the conclusion to the ensuing debate was no.

Tina Nielsen

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