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Fast-food workers on faster rising wage scale

By David Robinson


The state’s new minimum wage law puts upstate’s fast-food workers on a pedestal.

Under the wage scale hammered out by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature in the state budget, the minimum wage earned by fast-food workers will be higher than the minimum wage earned by other workers.

The difference is significant, too.

When the next bump in the minimum wage kicks in at the end of this year, upstate’s fast-food workers earning the minimum wage will make 11 percent more than a minimum wage worker at a supermarket or a lawn care company. Most minimum wage workers will earn $9.70 an hour in 2017, but fast-food workers will be paid $10.75 an hour.

By the time 2021 rolls around, upstate’s fast-food workers could be making 20 percent more – the equivalent of $2.50 an hour more.

The difference stems from the multipronged approach the Cuomo administration took to push through a higher minimum wage. Rather than working with the Legislature on what likely would have been an uphill fight to craft a uniform increase in the minimum wage – Cuomo took a piecemeal approach, turning to a wage board to order a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers across the state by 2021, while leaving the minimum wage for other private-sector workers unchanged.

With the budget deal, Cuomo was able to push through a broad-based minimum wage increase, but in upstate, it tops out at $12.50 an hour five years from now. By then, the fast-food minimum wage could be $15 an hour. That means a full-time fast-food worker will earn $100 a week more in 2021 than other full-time minimum wage workers upstate.

“The question is a good one,” Cuomo said during a meeting with editors and reporters at The Buffalo News this week.

“Would McDonald’s get the best minimum wage workers because you can make 50 cents an hour more?” Cuomo said. “We debated back and forth on if that actually means something or if it that means nothing.”

“We didn’t have a resolution,” Cuomo said.

So the budget deal leaves it up to the state commissioner of labor to determine whether or not the differences in the minimum wage are a detriment to the upstate economy.

And for the moment, that means there’s no movement afoot to bring the two upstate wage scales into line.

“The budget leaves it to the commissioner of labor to resolve it if he or she believes it needs to be justified,” Cuomo said.

The two-tiered wage scale will make it harder for many upstate businesses to recruit and keep minimum wage workers, who can earn more by working at a fast-food restaurant, said Greg Biryla, executive director of the Unshackle Upstate business advocacy group.

“Having upstate fast-food workers’ wages increase on different trajectory than other employees makes little sense,” Biryla said. “This further demonstrates that the fast-food wage board and the recently enacted statutory wage increase were ill-conceived and will have detrimental impacts on the upstate economy.”

Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, agreed. “Having separate minimum wages for particular industries is problematic and is unnecessarily complicated,” she said.

“This will put pressure on industries that rely heavily on minimum wage workers like tourism,” Gallagher-Cohen said. “Differing minimum wage rates creates an uneven competitive playing field for employers looking to hire those workers.”