ALBANY — There are 144,415 people in the Capital District making the minimum hourly rate.
In New York’s Hudson Valley region, that number nearly doubles and, in New York City, it climbs to 927,400.
According to the Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, nearly 2.4 million workers in New York state currently earn less than $15 an hour. “Today, the minimum wage in New York is $9 an hour,” Cuomo said to an enthusiastic crowd gathered at Empire State Plaza on Tuesday, March 15. “You know what? You can’t live on $9 an hour and have a decent life.”
As part of a campaign named for his father, Cuomo has been touring the state in support of raising the minimum wage in New York to $15 an hour and implementing 12 weeks of paid family leave for every employee. “We’ve been driving all over the state for weeks, bringing this message to people all across the state, I feel the energy growing, I feel the momentum growing, and we’re going to get a $15 minimum wage right here in New York.”
“People are angry,” he said. “And you know what? People should be angry. Why? Because the working men and the working women of this state and this country have been going backwards for decades, my friends. Because if you are middle class, if you’re a working family, you don’t feel like you’re getting ahead, you don’t see a brighter future, you don’t feel the mobility. The bills keep getting bigger and the paycheck keeps getting smaller and you don’t know how you’re going to make it.” As the crowd applauded, Cuomo blamed politics, media and racism for the evident discontent of those gathered on the plaza.
“What’s causing the problem,” he continued forcefully, “is economic injustice, and working men and working women being exploited. We’ve had enough and we want fairness and we want respect and we want dignity. That’s what this is about and it starts with the minimum wage.” Quoting President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former occupant of the Governor’s Mansion in Albany who passed the initial minimum wage law in 1938, Cuomo said, “The minimum wage should pay people a salary that allows them a decent living.” The hundreds gathered on the Plaza roared with their approval.
Small business owners in Colonie, however, are less enthusiastic about the potential wage hike, expressing concerns about how they will be able to meet payrolls and what to do about long-time employees who aren’t making much more than $15 an hour right now. Some even think it could negatively impact those it is meant to help.
“They’re very concerned about how this is going to affect their businesses,” said Tom Nolte, president of the Colonie Chamber of Commerce. “They’re concerned about payroll and about the Affordable Care Act and feel that it’s becoming harder and harder to run a small business. They’re going to have to make changes in staffing and pricing in order to continue to do business.”
“Needless to say, I’m against it,” said Rod Dion, owner of Tech Valley Office Interiors. “But I’m against it because I don’t think that they’re looking at the long-term effects of it. Does the wage have to go up? Probably. But 67 percent — I think that’s the number they keep using — in everyday real-life situations, who get’s a 67 percent increase? And, to think that there are no ramifications? I keep hearing the governor saying that we’re going to do this and it’s good and who am I to argue that? But, then he also says that there are no consequences on the other side of it—and that’s kind of shortsighted and scary, as a business owner, to see that. Because there are real consequences.”
“We’ve just finished going up to $9,” Dion continued. “And the fast food restaurants have just started finalizing their changes. We haven’t even allowed that to absorb yet and see how that’s going to play out, and all of the sudden we’re going to go and quadruple it? What’s the rationale to that? It’s hard being a business owner in New York, you finally absorb a new thing and you haven’t even breathed yet and then they quadruple it. Won’t the fight for $15 become the fight for $20? Where does it stop?”
One thing Dion is particularly concerned about is his ability to hire day workers for bigger projects. “The action to raise to $15 is supposed to help those on the lowest rung, if I understand what the governor is saying,” he said. “Yet, on my side of the business, I own an office furniture dealership and don’t keep a large staff on hand for when we have large contracts. So I have to go out to labor-ready places, where you get day laborers for specific projects. So, now with ACA, their rates have already gone up to where they’re almost out of my range. Now, if you add in the minimum wage, ironically, these people who are on the lowest rung are going to be the most affected because I won’t be able to afford to hire them.”
Dion also worries about skilled, long-time employees, noting that it would seem unfair to start new employees at the same (or close to the same) pay rate. “The majority of my employees already make $15 or more,’ he said. “Now, if we make the minimum $15, then what do I do about my employees who have been here for numerous years and are at that rate now? It’s almost like a double raise.” Small businesses, he said, will be disproportionately affected. “We just can’t absorb the costs the way that larger corporations can.”
“Our core member is that small business,” said Nolte. “That sole proprietor or that mom-and-pop, 11 employee-or-less business, and they’re working on much smaller margins in order to stay in business. They are willing to pay people what they’re worth, but they’re bringing people in who are then getting raises based on their work or based on their skill set instead of setting a bar so high to begin with. I know they’re worried about the implications, about how it’s going to affect the job pool—possibly you could go anywhere for $15 an hour and is that going to make people change their skill set?”
“You’re going to hear from the opponents that we can’t raise minimum wage because it will be bad for the economy,” said Cuomo. “First of all, in this state, we have upstate and downstate economies, which are different, and we’ve taken that into account in our plan. We have a phase-in plan for upstate New York.”
Currently, 29 states in the union have minimum wages that are higher than federal law requires (including New York); and in 13 states that raised minimum wage in 2014, all saw higher employment growth during the first half of the year, when compared with states that made no change. Research done by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) indicates that wage increases do not reduce employment or job growth significantly and, in a report, NELP questions the “outdated” methodologies of research opposing wage increases and suggests that savings from reduced employee turnover and increased productivity may help business owners absorb higher payroll costs.
A $15 minimum wage increase—by the and of 2018 in New York City and by the end of 2021 statewide—has been included in the Democrat-controlled Assembly 2016-2017 budget, but was omitted from the state Senate, which has a narrow conservative majority.
“Obviously this is something that isn’t going to happen tomorrow,” said Nolte. “The hopes are, that if it is going to happen, that there will be ways to ease the burden on small business. Right now, there’s just a lot of conjecture out there.”