Make the NY Minimum Wage a Living Wage

Pete Meyers and Carl Feuer*

Workers in New York are struggling mightily to make ends meet with wages that are far below a living wage.

Governor Hochul’s solution is to peg the minimum wage – currently $14.20/hour – to inflation. “This seems … workable to us,” Ken Pokalsky of the NYS Business Council said.

Workable? Neither the Governor nor the Business Council seem to have consulted any low-wage workers.

Is it workable when your kids are hungry at the end of the month because your wage is too low?  Is it workable when your landlord initiates eviction proceedings because you can’t make this month’s rent payment? What about when the car breaks down and your job goes down the drain because you can’t find $500 or more for repairs? Or when utility rates skyrocket so much that you have to decide between heat or food? Or when your children end up with a sitter too much of the time because you are forced to work two jobs and even then, may not make ends meet.

How bad is this problem? Very bad. According to the new “Wage Atlas” developed by Cornell University researchers, more than half of all workers in the Southern Tier earn less than a living wage (three-quarters if you are Black or Hispanic). And Governor Hochul’s plan would not change this one iota.

The only sustainable and sure solution is to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. And then, and only then, index it to inflation or some other standard.

The Raise the Wage Act would do this, phasing increases of the minimum wage in over four years, till it reaches $21.25 in 2027. The average wage earner would see their earnings rise by over $3,000/per year, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Governor Hochul’s plan, however, would bake-in poverty wages forever, and ensure that the terrible wage and wealth inequality already devastating NY working families will only worsen.

Yes, in the short run, small businesses will face challenges, but the four-year phase-in process will allow time for planning and accommodation. And there will be benefits too, including rising productivity, sharp declines in turnover, and more consumer demand.  And research has consistently shown little evidence that minimum wage increases result in significant job loss.

The bottom line is that we can no longer accept wages that leave some unable to support themselves or their families, while many others flourish and become rich.  We must not continue this race to the bottom. The time to make the minimum wage a living wage in New York State is now. Anything less is unfair to workers, unjust in a State filled with wealth, and immoral in a society that values human dignity.

* Meyers, presently the Director, and Feuer are co-founders of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center. Feuer also coordinates the Robin Fund, a Tompkins County charity organization.