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Difficulties of living on minimum wage outlined for Wage Board meeting here

Call a job in fast food whatever you want, but do not call it easy.

That’s according to Jerry Newman, a distinguished teaching professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo School of Management, who worked undercover in the fast food industry for his book, “My Secret Life on the McJob.”

“It’s a high-pressure job. You’re frantically working because there are lines of people and all of them want their food right now. They’re yelling at you,” he said. “It’s not just flipping burgers, there are 15 different jobs you have to learn, a lot of teamwork and a lot of different skill sets.”

Still, Newman said, an across-the-board raise in fast-food wages to $15 an hour is “such a bad idea.” If enacted, he said, companies would raise their prices and look to cut costs by replacing workers with technology. Then all other companies in all other industries would have to raise their wages in order to compete for quality employees.

“But workers and employers can make good cases either way,” he said.

To hear those cases, the Labor Department has set up a Wage Board at the behest of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The statewide board is chaired by Mayor Byron W. Brown; Kevin Ryan, founder of shopping website Gilt; and Mike Fishman, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union. Brown represents the public interest on the board, while Ryan represents business interests and Fishman represents labor.

A public hearing was held in Buffalo Friday, while three more are planned for Albany, Garden City and Manhattan. The board will then make recommendations to the state labor commissioner, who can accept, reject or modify them. A provision in the labor law allows the commissioner to raise the minimum wage for individual occupations without legislative approval.

So far, there has been strong support for a $15 minimum wage among social activists, Democratic politicians, clergy, labor groups and fast-food workers from around the state.

At Friday’s hearing, dozens of fast-food workers delivered remarks to the board, outlining the various ways the state’s current $8.75 minimum wage makes life unmanageable for them.

Wendy’s worker Somalia Doyle, who is also a mother and a college student, said she had to save three paychecks in order to afford one college textbook.

“I’m not trying to earn weekend pocket money,” she said. “I’m trying to raise my family.”

Crescenzo Scipione, a Burger King worker from Rochester, said he couldn’t afford to continue his education at the University at Buffalo, can barely pay his bills and worries about how he will support his aging parents.

“It has gotten to where hopelessness doesn’t even seem unusual anymore,” he told the board.

Florence Tripi, president of the Civil Service Employees Association, region 6, said a minimum wage hike for fast-food workers would boost the economy.

“Workers don’t put money into banking accounts in the Cayman Islands. They buy goods and services and put it back into the economy,” she said. “What is good for them is good for us all.”

Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good, said a pay raise for fast-food workers would be just the beginning.

“It’s the lowest paid occupation in the nation,” he said. “If you’re going to start somewhere to raise the floor, it makes sense to raise it where the floor is the lowest.”

The average annual wage of a fast-food worker in New York State was $15,954 last year, according to statistics from the state Labor Department’s division of research and statistics. That puts a family of two just above 2014’s federal poverty guideline of $15,730. A family of two in Erie County would require an annual wage of $31,974 in order to meet the state’s Self-Sufficiency Standard, which takes into account child care, food, transportation, health care and taxes.

Speakers addressed common stereotypes about fast-food workers, specifically that workers are teenagers who would earn more if they went to college, and that minimum wage jobs are entry level work not meant to support families. They pointed to statistics from the Center for Economic and Policy Research that only 30 percent of fast-food workers are teenagers, 40 percent have some college, and that fast-food work is the fastest growing occupation in the country, according to the National Employment Law Project.

Speakers also said a wage hike would ease citizens’ tax burden, since taxpayers subsidize worker benefits to the tune of $153 billion a year with Medicaid, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and assistance to needy families, according to the University of California Berkeley Labor Center.

Michael Saltsman, research director for the Employment Policies Institute, said workers’ concerns were valid, but their proposed remedy was misguided. He pointed to a survey of restaurant owners across New York State by the Employment Policies Institute, a group supported by the restaurant lobby. The survey showed 70 percent of respondents said they would be “very likely” to raise prices in response to a $15 minimum wage, while 48 percent said they would be “very likely” to reduce employee hours and staffing levels. Saltsman said something like the current Earned Income Tax Credit is a better solution than a wage hike.

The Restaurant Association opposes the wage hike and has called the hearings a “dog and pony show.”

“It seems as though this is just a formality, that this is going to get pushed through,” said Jay Holland, a spokesman for the Restaurant Association. “The business community feels like it’s being ignored.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com