NEW YORK — Fast-food workers in New York state would see a super-sized raise under a plan to phase in a $15 minimum wage — the first time a state has singled out a particular industry for such an increase.
The hike, approved Wednesday by the state Wage Board, would increase gradually over three years in New York City and six years for the rest of the state. It would apply to employees at any fast-food restaurant with 30 or more locations, impacting an estimated 200,000 workers.
"You cannot live and support a family on $18,000 a year in the state of New York — period," Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose administration must approve the idea, said at a Manhattan rally celebrating the proposal. "This is just the beginning. We will not stop until we reach true economic justice."
San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles have approved gradual increases to $15 an hour, and the huge University of California system said Wednesday that it would raise its minimum to $15 for all hourly workers. That group includes students and full-time employees working in dining halls, dorms and bookstores or as gardeners, housekeepers and custodians at campuses and hospitals.
With a large concentration of low-wage workers, the fast-food industry has become a popular target for labor activists who say the minimum wage hasn't kept up with the cost of living. Fast-food employees themselves have emerged as a potent political force in New York and around the nation.
"If I made $15, I could pay my rent on time, I could put food on the table, I could hold my head up," said Rebecca Cornick, a 60-year-old grandmother who makes $9 an hour at a Brooklyn Wendy's. "We have worked so hard to make this happen."
Restaurant owners, however, have warned that higher wages will force them to raise menu prices, cut employee hours and potentially hire fewer workers.
"Singling out fast food restaurants while ignoring other industries that hire workers who are paid under $15 is unfair and discriminatory," said Jack Bert, a franchisee who owns seven McDonald's in New York City. "This has been a flawed process and there is yet to be a rationale for why this has gone forth in this manner."
David Sutz, who along with his partners owns four Burger Kings, said many owners may look to automation to replace servers and avoid the higher labor costs.
"Unfortunately, I can turn one of my registers into a kiosk and eliminate a position," he said. "Labor is your second most expensive cost in this industry after the product."
Randy Mastro, an attorney hired by a group of franchise owners, said the group will consider whether it can challenge the increase in court.
The fast-food industry employs a greater number of minimum-wage workers than other sectors of the economy, according to Michael Reich, a University of California-Berkeley economics professor who has studied the minimum wage.
"It accounts for more low-wage employment than any other," he said of the industry. "If you're going to pick one sector, it's a strategic one."
The increase now goes to Cuomo's labor commissioner for a final authorization. It does not require legislative approval.
Cuomo called for the creation of the Wage Board after proposals to increase the minimum wage for all workers failed in the Legislature.