May 2, 2002

State Assembly Decides to Raise Minimum Wage; Senate to Vote

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A bill to increase the minimum wage in New York from $5.15 per hour to $6.75 per hour is currently being reviewed by the New York State Senate. The bill, sponsored by State Assembly Labor Committee Chair Catherine Nolan (D-Queens), was passed by the Assembly two weeks ago on April 10.

This is the second time this bill has come to the Republican-dominated Senate’s floor, and it is unlikely to pass now.

If the bill were passed into law, all New York employers, excluding farm businesses, would be required to pay workers at least $6.75 per hour beginning Jan. 1, 2003. It also dictates that the minimum wage be reassessed annually according to the Consumer Price Index for New York and Northeastern New Jersey, increasing if the Index increases.

Before the bill can become law it must be approved by a majority of the Senate and be signed by Governor George Pataki.

Cornell’s local State Sen. James L. Seward (R-50th) is opposed to the bill’s passage. Duncan Davie, Seward’s chief of staff, said Senator Seward “believes that New York State’s minimum wage should be linked to the federal minimum wage.” He cited the Senator’s key concern on the issue of minimum wage was to protect New York State’s economy.

“In today’s economy, New York has to be careful that it does not put itself at a competitive disadvantage,” he added.

In support of raising Cornell’s minimum wage, Carl Feuer, steering committee member of the Tompkins County Living Wage Coalition (TCLWC), believed that all New Yorkers would benefit from the bill. He said that those individuals earning the current minimum wage are forced to seek government support to sustain themselves and their families.

Therefore, on the problem of a low minimum wage, Feuer asks, “Who pays the cost?” and answers, “We do, the taxpayers. We pay for the social ramifications of business.”

According to Feuer, by paying for government programs that give money to impoverished workers with very low wages, New York State is “creating a tax burden for the taxpayers.” He also feels that by not raising the minimum wage to livable levels New Yorkers are “subsidizing businesses,” because businesses, saving on the costs of wages, are the only beneficiaries.

Cornell’s local New York State Assembly member Marty Luster (D-125th) agreed that it is time to raise the state’s minimum wage as he helped the bill get through the State Assembly. His office indicated that he was “extremely supportive of the bill.”

Cornell itself would almost be unaffected by the bill’s passage. According to Peter Tufford ’69, director of labor relations of Cornell’s Office of Human Resources, Cornell pays its staff, excluding some student positions, well above the minimum wage. Speaking historically for the Office of Human Resources, he said, “We have not used the minimum wage as a point of reference in determining our pay practice.”

Brian Goodell, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2300, which represents many of the University’s employees, approved of Cornell’s union-worker wage policy. Speaking on the University’s labor contract, Goodell said, “Cornell has set a standard that is hard for other institutions to match.”

However, on New York State’s unwillingness to increase the minimum wage, Goodell said, “This is a disgrace. I saw our Assembly and State Senators give themselves a substantial raise and [leave] none for the minimum wage.”

Goodell places the blame for the state’s reluctance to pass the bill on Albany’s hearing “businesses cry poverty.” Moreover, he is tired of pro-business politicians who “cloak themselves with what happened on Sept. 11,” citing the recent struggles of New York’s economy. Like other supporters, he is in favor of this minimum wage bill because it is “what’s good for New Yorkers as a whole.”

Feuer said that New York’s economy would hardly be affected. He reasoned that state Republicans are afraid that the manufacturing business sector would be hurt. However, he says that this industry would be unaffected by this bill “because manufacturing pays over $6.75 per hour.” Furthermore, Feuer said that New York will not lose any competitive advantage for manufacturing. “Aside from Pennsylvania, neighboring states all have minimum wages above $6.”

Massachusetts has set its minimum wage at $6.75, Vermont at $6.25 and Pennsylvania is currently linked to the federal minimum wage, as is New York, at $5.15 per hour. Connecticut’s minimum wage is currently $6.70 per hour, and it may be raised in the upcoming year.

The Tompkins County Living Wage Coalition (TCLWC), Feuer and Goodell support approving a “living wage” in place of minimum wage. A living wage of $8.46 per hour, according to Goodell, is necessary if all workers are to be guaranteed enough wages to sustain themselves with one job. The TCLWC is a collection of about 30 local groups that support this cause. Nonetheless, Feuer said, “any increase is good.”

As part of TCLWC, Feuer said that the coalition had found support for raising New York’s minimum wage from “virtually everybody” in our community. The TCLWC, with Luster, successfully led a campaign in which local residents sent in postcards to the Capitol in Albany. They were successful in pushing the minimum wage bill through the Assembly, but Feuer was doubtful they would be successful in the Senate. “It’s do-able,” Feuer said, but he also said that he “would not express confidence.”

Archived article by David Mendoza