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Partnership’s agenda for 2016 includes fight against hike in minimum wage

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership is vowing to fight against a $15-an-hour minimum wage and for additional reforms to the state’s workers’ compensation program that would enable businesses to save money.

The region’s leading business advocacy group rolled out its 2016 agenda in an event at Pettibones Grille on Thursday, highlighting nearly two dozen positions on key policy, tax and economic issues that affect Western New York businesses.

Unlike in previous years, when the Partnership combined its economic-development and policy initiatives in a single rollout, the group decided to split its 2016 initiatives into two separate agendas. The group released its agenda of priority economic-development projects in late November.

Among the group’s priorities:

• It opposes Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by mid-2021, which already is in place for state employees and fast-food workers. “This hike will mean fewer jobs for those who are already struggling, and higher consumer prices for goods and services across the board,” the business group said.

The Partnership, citing a study by economists Douglas J. Holtz-Eakin and Benjamin Gitis, warned that a 67 percent increase in the minimum wage could lead to 15,400 job cuts in Western New York. The group also argued that a $15 minimum is too high in a region where the median hourly pay for all occupations is $16.71 an hour and where 25 percent of all workers in jobs outside the food service industry earn less than $15 an hour.

Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the Partnership’s president, called the minimum wage hike “the elephant in the room” for upstate businesses. The Partnership is one of more than 30 New York business groups that have formed the Minimum Wage Reality Check coalition to oppose the increase.

“We know it’s an uphill battle, and not always a popular position, but it’s too important to sit on the sidelines,” she said.

• The group supports reforms to the state’s workers’ comp program, aimed at lowering employer costs, which rose from 19th-highest in the nation in 2008 to fourth-highest in 2014.

The Partnership is backing changes that would reduce such payments “to accurately reflect medical advancements that have improved recovery times and outcomes,” as well as trimming employee payments that are not related to actual lost work time.

Rhonda I. Frederick, president and CEO of People Inc., said the human services organization spends $2.75 on workers’ comp for every $100 in payroll.

“Costs continue to climb,” she said. “Real workers’ compensation reform that drives down costs for everyone – including employers – is long overdue.”

• It seeks the elimination of a utility tax on manufacturers and other big power users, and supports changes to the state’s energy regulations under the ongoing Reforming the Energy Vision process that would be market-driven and transparent.

• The group is calling for establishment of a registry for vacant properties in the City of Buffalo to better tackle blight and highlight opportunities for redevelopment.

• The Partnership seeks changes to worker training programs to focus on skills that are in high demand by employers and the jobs they need to fill. The group wants employer representatives appointed to local Workforce Investment Boards and for those job training resources to be targeted to jobs and industries that are being targeted by the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council’s strategic plan.

• It backs changes in border crossing measures included in the Beyond the Border agreement, including a requirement that trucks file electronic freight manifests and pay bridge user fees in advance – measures that it believes could cut truck-processing times by an average of 18 minutes.

• The Partnership is pushing for the development of a master plan for infrastructure around the RiverBend project in South Buffalo to ensure that the area around the SolarCity factory has reliable and adequate electricity supplies, telecommunications services and freight networks to support future commercial growth.