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$15 minimum wage for fast-food workers raises too many troublesome questions

Minimum wages are a valuable and broadly accepted reality in American life and it is important for them to keep pace. But it is also important for them to be applied fairly and in a way that businesses can absorb into their operations. The expected wage increase, to $15 per hour, for fast-food workers violates both those concepts. It needs to be reconsidered.

It is true that fast-food workers can live in dire conditions. At the state’s $8.75-per-hour minimum wage, some have had to ration food during the week, share rooms and beds and rely on various forms of public assistance to make ends meet. Thus, taxpayers are helping to subsidize the low wages the industry pays its workers. There is a real issue there.

But there are countervailing issues, as well. Among them:

• Why single out fast-food workers? Their lives are no more valuable than those of anyone else who works a minimum-wage job. It smacks of unequal protection.

• Why has the Legislature ducked its responsibility for the issue by vesting power in an unelected wage board? The impact of so large an increase could be economically significant – in ways good and bad – and deserves the attention of members of the Senate and Assembly.

• Why is the increase so large? It will distort the marketplace and foment potential economic consequences that include higher prices, fewer customers, reduced workforces and fewer hours.

There is a fair question to be asked, as well, regarding the purpose of a minimum wage and how much workers in the fast-food industry should reasonably expect to earn. A wage of $15 an hour provides a full-time income of about $31,000 a year, which seems like a lot for work that requires few skills, but can teach useful lessons about work behaviors including punctuality, teamwork and consistency. For those who are ambitious, those skills and continuing education, for which financial assistance may be available, can be parlayed into better work.

None of this matters if the minimum wage was meant to provide a living standard beyond that which the wage now provides. That’s a fair debate – which is the purpose of a legislature. But, whatever that conclusion is, it cannot so distort the marketplace that its important influences are undermined and workers are disincentivized from the universal and lifelong task of improving themselves.

This issue describes, in microcosm, the irresponsibility of New York State government. The State Senate and business groups resist all minimum wage increases as though they were the death knell for business, even though they never have been.

In the Assembly, it’s the flip side of the same coin: Members there will never do anything about the state’s preposterous and expensive Scaffold Law, for example, even though the law does nothing to make workers safer here than in other states.

Because both chambers and the special interests that fund them are so often given to unreasonable positions, costs soar. The proposed increase for fast-food workers is just one shiny example.

It’s impossible now to know all the consequences of so large a wage increase for a comparatively small segment of the population.

It is fair to observe, though, that business routinely overstates the impact of all wage increases. But the expected increase – the amount has not been announced, but many expect the rate to reach $15 – is big enough to be worrisome and exclusive enough to be unfair.

Something else needs to happen, whether it is a lesser increase, a phased-in increase or an increase that affects all minimum-wage workers. The wage board needs to rethink this plan. And the Legislature needs to reconsider its responsibilities.