Workers who make low wages making hotel beds, ringing up groceries, delivering pizza and tending tables in New York say the proposed hike in the state’s minimum wage won’t erase all their financial worries.
But it will help.
“The priority for that extra 20 dollars a month would be probably something other than macaroni and cheese … all the time,” said Myrna Capaldi, a single mother in Kingston who makes $8.59 an hour working with Head Start families.
Lawmakers in Albany are considering a proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to increase the state minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.75 an hour in July. Assembly Democrats proposed making it $9 an hour after President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address this week proposed hiking the federal minimum wage, also $7.25 an hour, to $9 in stages by the end of 2015.
Cuomo has described the current minimum wage, which works out to about $15,000 a year for full-time work, as “unlivable.” Many people making the minimum or a little above it agree.
“It’s pretty difficult to put bread on the table and make sure I have enough gas to get to work,” said Capaldi. “And to pull up to the gas pump and the price of gas has yet again gone up but your hourly salary has not.”
About five percent of hourly wage earners in New York state make the minimum or below (like workers who receive tips), according to federal figures. The proposed hike would also directly affect workers making more than minimum but less than $8.75. Those 747,000 workers make up nine percent of the state’s work force, according to an analysis by the labor-backed Fiscal Policy Institute.
Who are those workers?
Opponents of a wage hike note that many are teens with part-time jobs still living at home. But the FPI analysis says more than eight in 10 of the people making $8.75 or less in New York are at least 20 years old. Most are women and almost half these low-wage earners work at least 35 hours a week.
In the Bronx — a borough with a persistently high poverty rate — a state-high 12.5 percent of workers make $8.75 or less an hour, according to the FPI analysis. A number of largely rural upstate counties like Montgomery, Steuben and Essex, also had high rates.
Whether rural or urban, people on the low end of the wage scale tell similar stories of never having enough money to keep up.
In Queens, Kassandra Guzman, an 18-year-old high school student, works seven days a week and said she still has trouble saving for college after helping her parents pay their bills. Capaldi, who is raising a teen, makes a lot of macaroni and shops at Goodwill on Wednesdays, which are half-price days.
“It’s really hard, sometimes we don’t even make rent until two weeks after its due,” said 20-year-old Joselyn Flower, who lives in the Ithaca area.
The extra $1.50 an hour for minimum wage earners could gross an extra $60 a week for full-timers. How much more people making slightly over would reap depend on whether their employer raises them to the new minimum.
“It wouldn’t buy much, but I would feel the difference,” said Brandon Montes, a senior at Fordham University who holds down two lower-wage jobs. “It’s expensive to live in New York and every little bit helps.”
Flower said: “It’s not going to make it easy, but it certainly will make it a lot less hard.”
Opponents of the hike, including some business interests, say the increase would actually hurt those lower-wage workers who would get laid off by employers unable to afford suddenly higher payroll costs.
Economists have debated that point for years. Opponents point to a peer-reviewed study last year that concluded New York’s minimum wage increase from $5.15 to $6.75 over two years beginning in 2004 coincided with a roughly 20 percent drop in employment for less-skilled, less-educated 16- to 29-year-olds.
The evidence is mixed, said Matthew Freedman, an assistant professor at Cornell University’s Department of Labor Economics. And if there are negative effects, he added, a hike in the wage does not seem to be “as vicious a job destroyer as some fear.”