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Advocates Debate Merits of Minimum Wage Increase
Aaron Scholder

January 21, 2012
View the Original Article

ALBANY - A reignited push to increase New York's minimum wage is already being met with resistance from business groups, who say a raise could mean less jobs for state residents.

Both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg support increasing the wage rate, which currently stands at $7.25 an hour. Their support has sparked intense debate among advocacy groups, garnering significant attention as Silver plans to make it a pillar of the state Assembly's 2012 agenda.

Prior to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's State of the State address on Jan. 3, Silver brought the issue to the forefront, saying "it is absurd to expect anyone - let alone a working family - to afford the cost of living today and be able to invest in their future on a salary of $7.25 an hour or $15,000 a year."

Business advocates, however, say an increase in the wage rate would hurt employers because of the cascading pay increases workers might receive as a result, which would affect their bottom line.

"I think any movement to increase the minimum wage has to be looked at very carefully," said Brian Sampson, executive director of Unshackle Upstate, a Rochester-based business-backed group. "I think you're ultimately going to lead to a place where you don't create any more jobs ... because that added cost is simply not a good thing for our private-sector employers right now."

Sampson said the cost of goods and services people currently enjoy could go up as a result of a wage increase.

Supporters of a possible increase, however, say it's a small price to pay to have workers compensated fairly.

"McDonald's is not shutting down if it has to raise the price of a hamburger two pennies, and if that's what happens, that's OK.

Society should pay that (in return for a higher wage)," said Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party.

Support for the minimum-wage increase has thus far received a chilled response from state leaders other than Silver. Both Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, have not publicly embraced a possible increase.

Both Cuomo and Skelos said this week they are waiting to see formal bill introduced.

"I'm looking to see a proposal, a specific proposal, and then I'll comment," Cuomo told reporters in Queens on Thursday.

Supporters of the increase say it is badly needed, with many low-wage workers struggling to survive in a harsh economy.

As it stands, New York's rate of $7.25 is tied to the federal minimum wage, so any increase made at the federal level would be matched at the state level. The highest wage in the country belongs to the state of Washington, where workers currently earn $9.04 per hour.

"It's critical for our communities," said Milan Bhatt, the co-executive director of the Worker Justice Center, a Rochester-based group supporting an increase. "If you look at a lot of the historical indicators and even some of the current economic indicators of average cost of living per week, frankly New York state deserves a minimum wage that's $10 an hour or more."

While that number would make New York's rate the highest in the country, there is a push by advocacy groups in New York City to see a "living wage" law passed that would ensure city residents' ability to live comfortably.

But Mike Durant, director of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said any type of increase would be misguided.

A wage increase, Durant said, would go against state leaders' attempts to create new jobs and improve the state's economy.

"It's a myth. I believe there are an enormous amount of families sustaining life on minimum wage," he said. "Many studies indicate that many that have jobs making minimum wage are a third or fourth earner (in a family), so you're talking a lot about teens."