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Andrew Cuomo Bypasses Legislature to Give Fast-Food Workers Higher Wages

The New York governor's maneuver is the culmination of a fight for $15-an-hour wages for fast-food workers that started in New York City almost three years ago.

By Freeman Klopott

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is sidestepping the state legislature to raise earnings for fast-food workers beyond New York's $8.75 per hour minimum wage.

The move follows nationwide strikes by employees of McDonald's Corp. and other companies that demanded a $15 hourly wage. The new level for earnings won't be known until a wage board empaneled at the governor's direction makes a recommendation to Cuomo's labor commissioner, who can implement it without lawmaker approval.

New York spends $6,800 in public assistance per fast-food worker annually, more than any other state, Cuomo said in a New York Times opinion article published Thursday. It totals $700 million per year, he said.

"Too many Americans don't believe their children will have a better life than their own," Cuomo said in the op-ed. "Through the Wage Board, New York can set fast-food workers on a path out of poverty, ease the burden on taxpayers and create a new national standard."

Cuomo is using a power he has under state law to circumvent the legislature after he couldn't persuade the Republican-controlled Senate to back his proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.50 per hour and $11.50 in New York City. The Democrat-controlled Assembly had sought a $15 minimum wage for the city.

The 57-year-old Democrat said boosting wages, rather than smothering the companies that pay them with new rules and higher taxes, is his answer to a national debate over how to narrow the growing divide between rich and poor. In New York, entry-level fast-food workers earn an average of $16,920 annually, he said.

Cuomo's maneuver is the culmination of a fight for $15-an-hour wages for fast-food workers that started in New York City almost three years ago, said Christine Owens, executive director for the National Employment Law Project, which backs higher earnings.

"This milestone is a game-changer that will no doubt reverberate around the nation and across numerous low-wage industries," Owens said in an e-mailed statement.

Melissa Fleischut, who heads the New York State Restaurant Association, said it should be up to the legislature to set a minimum wage that affects all businesses.

"Singling out one industry to have a higher minimum wage than all other occupations is unfair and arbitrary," Fleischut said in a statement.

In February, the state labor commissioner backed a recommendation from another wage board empaneled by Cuomo to raise wages for restaurant workers who earn tips by $2.50 to $7.50 per hour.

(c)2015 Bloomberg News

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