By Matthew Hamilton
Low-wage state workers -- from lifeguards to groundskeepers, cleaning staff to office assistants -- are getting a raise.
That decree came down Tuesday from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said New York would "lead by example" as he uses his executive authority to increase the minimum wage for roughly 10,000 state workers to $15 per hour over the next three to six years.
The announcement comes as the Cuomo administration conducts contract talks with the Public Employees Federation and gears up to negotiate with CSEA, whose current contract is up in the spring.
"We fight for fairness. We fight for justice. We act first," the governor said at a Manhattan rally that was part of a national day of action by proponents of a $15 minimum wage for all workers.
His voice rising to a shout, Cuomo promised to "raise up this nation to a higher level than it has ever been."
In New York, the boost will take some time: Workers in New York City would earn $15 per hour by the end of 2018; workers outside the five boroughs -- who make up about 90 percent of those currently making less than $15 -- would reach that level by the middle of 2021, increasing about a dollar per year.
The change covers all of state government, including state agencies as well as authorities, an administration official said. It's expected to cost the state about $20.6 million annually, including affected benefits.
The move addresses criticism leveled at Cuomo in the wake of his recent unilateral action to raise the wages of fast food workers while some government employees languish earn $8.75 hourly -- a sum that Cuomo, discussing fast food pay, has called a poverty wage.
But CSEA and PEF, unions that have had rocky relationships with Cuomo, were all smiles after the news broke Tuesday.
Cuomo "has demonstrated bold leadership that will benefit undervalued working people and send a clear message that this issue cannot be ignored," CSEA President Danny Donohue said in a statement. "The governor's action will have positive practical impact and will be good for New York's economy as a whole."
Public Employees Federation President Wayne Spence said, "In an era of outsized executive compensation and a robust stock market, this is a basic step toward fairness in society."
The broader "Fight for $15" continues to shape up as a central battle of the 2016 legislative session, beginning in January.
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, in Albany on Tuesday for a meeting of his conference, reiterated to reporters a few hours before Cuomo's announcement that he viewed the governor's fast food worker wage increase as "executive overreach."
Yet Flanagan shied away from making definitive comments on Cuomo's larger $15 wage plan Tuesday.
"While I appreciate people are focusing on this and that people are engaged on it, there's a lot of time between now and whatever we may enact," he said, noting that there's still no legislative language on how the higher wage might be enacted.
In Albany, advocacy groups and workers taking part in the national day of action gathered inside the Capitol on Tuesday to push for a "living wage."
"I pay half the bills in my house as a single dad," said Jerry Rooney, an Albany McDonald's employee, at an afternoon gathering on the ornate Million Dollar Staircase. "And I can't do it no more."
(c)2015 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)