When McDonald's announced a few weeks ago it was raising its minimum wage to $9 an hour, workers cheered. But their excitement came with caution: The mega-chain doesn't own most of its restaurants -- franchisees do -- so the impact would be limited. And in lots of places, $9-an-hour may not be much of an improvement. It's lot less than the $15 an hour activists have been asking for.
But their concerns have reached a a higher power: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who proposed in a New York Times op-ed Wednesday to boost pay in the fast food industry through his executive powers, after failing to get the Legislature to raise the minimum wage statewide through the regular process. He says he can do it by appointing a "Wage Board," determining its direction, and modifying the recommendations it comes up with as he sees fit.
New York is among a few states in which governors have the power to raise wages on their own, and they've done it before. Cuomo's father Mario Cuomo instituted a comprehensive wage order in 1986 that eliminated sub-minimum wages for youth workers. In 2009, Gov. David Paterson raised the tipped minimum wage. Gov. Cuomo himself raised wages for home health aides in 2012 -- setting different levels for different markets. And he succeeding in pushing a legislative process to raise the minimum wage in the state from $7.25 to $8.75 in 2013.
But raising a minimum wage just for one industry is relatively uncommon. Some local governments, like Portland's, have done it just for the workers they employ directly. Los Angeles did it last year for hotels, setting the minimum at $15.37. By targeting the fast food industry, Cuomo is explicitly emphasizing that it's the one with the lowest wages in the country -- and the one that's shown the most resistance to a higher wage.
Predictably, the restaurant industry objects to being targeted. "Singling out a sector of one industry to have a higher minimum wage than all other occupations is unfair and arbitrary," said Melissa Fleischut, President & CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, in response to the news.
The political winds, however, might not be blowing in their favor. Last month, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman pressed Gov. Cuomo to do just what he proposed to do today -- not let the legislature get in his way.
“Whether the Legislature votes to increase the minimum wage or the wage board acts on its own, our goal must be to adopt a real living wage for fast food and other low-wage workers in New York," Schneiderman said in a statement.
This post has been updated with statements from the New York State Restaurant Association and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.