NY Governor Andrew Cuomo Plans to Raise Fast Food Wages On His Own

In Depth

Yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put the fast food industry on notice when he proposed to raise fast food wages in the Empire State through use of an appointed “Wage Board,” circumventing the state legislature. But do such powers fall under his purview? Actually, most likely yes.

In a New York Times op-ed posted yesterday (in addition to a public rally held on the same day in Manhattan, pictured above), May 6, Cuomo made it damn clear that he can raise wages in the fast food industry without having to go through the legislature:

State law empowers the labor commissioner to investigate whether wages paid in a specific industry or job classification are sufficient to provide for the life and health of those workers — and, if not, to impanel a Wage Board to recommend what adequate wages should be.
On Thursday, I am directing the commissioner to impanel such a board, to examine the minimum wage in the fast-food industry. The board will return in about three months with its recommendations, which do not require legislative approval.
Nowhere is the income gap more extreme and obnoxious than in the fast-food industry. Fast-food C.E.O.s are among the highest-paid corporate executives. The average fast-food C.E.O. made $23.8 million in 2013, more than quadruple the average from 2000 (adjusting for inflation). Meanwhile, entry-level food-service workers in New York State earn, on average, $16,920 per year, which at a 40-hour week amounts to $8.50 an hour. Nationally, wages for fast-food workers have increased 0.3 percent since 2000 (again, adjusting for inflation).

Cuomo’s spikiness is both warranted and appreciated, given the difficulty of pushing minimum wage legislation through in most states and legislative bodies in America despite the fact that a majority of Americans would support such a move. The Governor’s point is well-taken, especially since he makes the persuasive case that New York is first in the country in public assistance spending per fast food worker (at an annual cost of $700 million to taxpayers), while McDonald’s, for all the dire predictions of its impending doom, made $4.67 billion last year. It’s interesting—and encouraging!—just how few fucks Cuomo gives at this point, though.

Make no mistake: this is Cuomo saying, “I’m raising fast food wages, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.” It’s not really a question what the labor commissioner (coming in this case in the form of a Wage Board) is going to rule—there’s no plausible way to argue that fast food industry wages are enough to “provide for the life and health” of workers in New York City, because they absolutely do not. When you adjust for the cost of living, the minimum wage in New York City is the lowest of any city in the country, and no industry gets hit harder by this than fast food.

It will almost certainly work, too. Thing is, New York’s kind of an odd duck when it comes to the level of gubernatorial authority in matters of wages. New York is one of a very few states* where Governors do have the power to raise wages through executive orders, and it wouldn’t be the first time it had happened even recently. The Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis does a good job of summarizing it here: Cuomo’s father Mario Cuomo did something similar in 1986 when he eliminated sub-minimum wages for youth workers, David Paterson raised the tipped minimum wage in 2009, and the current Cuomo did it himself in 2012 when he raised wages for home health aides.

While it might appear unusual for a state to target a specific industry for wage increases, the precedent has already been set with cities like Los Angeles (for hotel workers) and Portland, Oregon (for city workers) raising wages for specific sub-sets of their workforce. The only extraordinary part at this point is that those were instances of a local governing body taking action, rather than a unilateral executive ruling. The primary example of a Governor targeting a specific industry is likely Cuomo’s own from three years ago.

The biggest difference between that and this case is that home health aides didn’t have a massive, well-funded lobbying arm to fight against—or at least not one on the scale of the National Restaurant Association. While we haven’t yet heard their whinging about this, we have heard from the New York State Restaurant Association, which called the potential executive action “unfair and arbitrary” on their own website, for which I shall play them the world’s tiniest kazoo.** It’s probably only a matter of time until they do, but it’s still curious they haven’t gotten involved yet, as they’re generally very quick to respond to things that might affect the bottom lines of their constituent members. Maybe they’ve looked at the legal implications and concluded that Governor Cuomo is correct, but even then, you’d expect them to fight it on principle alone—being both legally and ethically in the wrong has never stopped them before. Them giving up the ghost on this is probably way too much to hope for.

You might be asking: is Cuomo simply doing this to try to stake out ground for a possible dark horse Presidential bid? The answer is both “quite possibly” and “who cares?” We should just be happy any American Governor is trying to do something about imbalanced wages.

* The others, insofar as we can tell, are California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. Pennsylvania, it might be possible as applies to the tipped minimum wage only.

** Their whine is not consequential enough to warrant breaking out the world’s tiniest violin in response.

Image via AP.

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