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New York's fast-food workers urge board to raise their pay

At a New York wage board hearing, a parade of fast-food employees offered heart-wrenching testimony about trying to get by — and maintain a measure of dignity.

NEW YORK – A Domino’s worker leaves home at 7:30 a.m. each day and often doesn’t return until 1 a.m., leaving him little time to see his young son. A McDonald’s cook works 40 hours a week but makes so little that, at 34, he still has to live with his parents. A Wendy’s employee said she was refused time off to be with her family after her grandchild died at birth.

At a hearing Monday of a New York wage board convened to consider raising wages for fast-food workers in the state, a parade of low-wage employees offered heart-wrenching stories about trying to survive—and maintain a measure of dignity—in a city with one of the highest costs of living in the nation.

The hearing in lower Manhattan, where hundreds of fast-food workers and their supporters were scheduled to testify, came as New York increasingly takes center stage in the fight for higher wages, and as a chorus of political leaders urged the board to act.

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month announced the creation of the board, after state lawmakers declined to act on his proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.50, and $11.50 in New York City. A national convention of fast-food workers meeting in Detroit last weekend passed a resolution offering support to their colleagues in New York. The board held its first hearing in Buffalo earlier this month.

Expectations are high that the board will produce results. Its three members — one representing the public, one representing labor and one representing business — all have expressed support for raising the minimum wage. At a pre-hearing rally organized by the Fight for 15 campaign, elected officials including Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, lined up to voice their support for a raise. Stringer released a new report Monday finding that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would raise city workers’ wages by $19.2 billion, benefiting nearly 1.5 million people.

And Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has put himself at the center of the nationwide push to combat economic inequality, added his voice in written testimony submitted to the board. “The people are demanding higher wages,” de Blasio wrote. “They are not requesting it, or begging for it. They are demanding it. And since we live in a democracy, I think it’s best for all of us in positions of leadership – including those on the Wage Board – to heed their call.”

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A victory in New York— where the minimum wage is currently set to hit $9 an hour by the end of the year — would be just the latest success for the labor-backed movement, though perhaps the most significant so far. Last week, Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest city, passed legislation to raise the minimum wage there to $15 an hour, joining several other west coast cities. In her campaign launch speech Saturday, Hillary Clinton stressed the need for a raise, calling it a “family issue.”

Opponents of a raise say it will reduce employment. “The entirely predictable recommendations of the Wage Board will mean that consumers of fast food will face fewer restaurants and higher prices,” Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the conservative Manhattan Institute, wrote online last week. “Some workers will lose their jobs.”

But Nick Hanauer, a Seattle-area venture capitalist who played a leading role in the successful campaign to raise that city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, argued in his own testimony that paying higher wages makes good business sense. “The claim that when wages rise, employment shrinks does not describe how the real world works,” said Hanauer. “It is a scam and an intimidation tactic.”

In an interview, Hanauer acknowledged that from the industry’s narrow short-term perspective, paying low wages makes economic sense. But over the longer term, he argued, it’s an unsustainable model. “The problem is, not everybody can have that deal,” he said. “Who will buy the stuff? Who will pay the taxes?”

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Still, the most powerful testimony came from workers themselves — almost all minorities, many speaking Spanish — who described being fed up with poverty wages, unpredictable hours, and poor conditions while toiling for billion-dollar companies.   

Shantel Walker, a Papa John’s worker, said she rarely was given enough hours each week to support herself. 

“So you found it difficult getting 40 hours a week?” asked Mayor Byron Brown of Buffalo, the public’s representative on the board.

“I found it difficult getting 30 hours a week,” Walker replied.

And Jorel Ware, a McDonald’s worker, said he’s fighting as much for self-respect as for higher pay. “I have customers that spit at me, throw things at me, call me names,” Ware told the board. "'Oh, you’re a minimum wage worker, you’re nothing, you don’t deserve nothing.’ And after a while I started believing them.”

Ware went on: “Until one day, I said you know what, I don’t believe it no more. I’m here to take my dignity back.”