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Fast-Food Workers Win A Battle In New York, Where Wage Fight Began

In a landmark decision, a New York state wage board has recommended an increase to a $15 minimum for the sector's 180,000 workers. It awaits approval by the labor commissioner.

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After months of emotional testimony by workers and nearly three years of a union-backed campaign to raise industry pay, a New York wage board recommended today that Governor Andrew Cuomo's labor commissioner raise the minimum for the state's 180,000 fast food workers to $15 over several years. To go into effect, the state's labor commissioner must now approve the recommendation.

The board recommends gradually increasing wages for workers in New York City to $15 by Dec. 31, 2018, and to $15 for the rest of the state (where the cost of living is lower) by July 1, 2021. The increase applies to fast food chains with 30 or more locations. Restaurant owners and business-backed groups have generally opposed the raise, claiming it will increase prices and reduce hiring.

The recommendation does not affect minimum wage workers in New York's other industries. Currently, the state minimum wage for New York is $8.75, slated to raise to $9 next year.

Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco all recently approved more sweeping changes, increasing the minimum to $15 over time for all workers, as cities including Washington, D.C. consider similar proposals. Last week, Kansas City, Missouri raised their local wage floor to $13 by 2020.

Workers elsewhere remain hopeful. "Considering the fact that the Fight for 15 started in New York, that's a big victory for all of us," said Bleu Rainer, 26, a McDonald's worker from Tampa, Florida who earns $8.05 an hour after eight years. Rainer has been a leader in the national Fight for 15 movement to raise pay for fast food workers to $15 and unionize.

New York's Fast Food Wage Board, convened by Governor Andrew Cuomo in May, was charged with investigating pay for fast food workers and recommending an increase if necessary for their health and well-being. New York has previously convened wage boards for tipped workers, and workers in the hotel, retail, laundry, and building service industries, as the board allows the governor to pass industry-specific increases without the State Legislature. Other states have also held wage boards.

Cooks, cashiers, union reps, and other low wage workers rallied outside the NY Department of Health building on Church Street in Manhattan in advance of the wage board announcement on Wednesday and gathered nearby to celebrate once word came down.

People starting to gather for the rally outside of the NY state wage board hearing. #FightFor15

"I feel like more of a human, instead of someone who can be stepped on and walked all over," said Jacquie Jordan, 49, who makes $9 an hour after seven years working at a McDonald's in Colonie, New York.

Jordan woke early on Wednesday to be on an 8:10 a.m. train from Albany to attend the meeting. She first marched with the Fight for 15 on April 15, when tens of thousands of workers in 200 cities protested in solidarity, and she hasn't missed an action since, she said.

Fast food franchise owners in New York have called the wage board increase "discriminatory" for targeting a particular industry, while allowing the state minimum to remain the same in retail and other sectors that also employ low wage workers.

While fast food giants such as McDonald's may operate some stores, they more often sell the rights to franchisees, who then own and run the restaurants. About 81% of McDonald's restaurants are owned by franchisees, not the company, and it plans to increase that ratio. A franchisee may own anywhere from a small number of stores to dozens.

"We are not the corporations whose names we bear but rather New Yorkers who work hard each and every day," reads a letter recently signed by 100 franchise owners and operators addressed to the governor's office. "By singling out fast food restaurants while ignoring other industries that hire entry-level workers, you will put our businesses at a competitive disadvantage."

.@meeshellchen @TheNation: NY fast food workers expected to win their #FightFor15, http://t.co/pBCLl0PBOe

Steve Caldeira, President and CEO of the International Franchise Association, has said the association will "aggressively fight" the decision. "If Governor Cuomo wishes to advance a wage increase, it should cover all of New York's businesses, not just a select few," he said.

Cuomo had previously proposed raising the state minimum to $10.50 per hour and $11.50 in New York City, but was unable to get the legislature to cooperate. As governor, he has the power to unilaterally raise wages at the recommendation of a wage board if the pay in a specific sector is found to be insufficient "to provide for the life and health of those workers." Once the state labor commissioner responds to the recommendation of the board, his decision becomes legally binding.

Jordan says she think the wage board decision will encourage others at the McDonald's where she works to join the Fight for 15. Though some have voiced skepticism of the movement's ability to bring results, now they'll see "actual proof on TV."

Today was a huge win but we aren't finished. There is a 15 day comment period and we will need everyone to weigh in for $15 in NY.

Here's the recommended schedule for raising the rate in New York.

In New York City

The minimum wage rate should be increased to

$10.50 on Dec. 31, 2015,

$12 on Dec. 31, 2016,

$13.50 on Dec. 31, 2017,

and $15 on Dec. 31 2018.

In the rest of the state

The rate should increase to

$9.75 on Dec 31, 2015;

$10.75 on Dec. 31, 2016,

$11.75 on Dec. 31 2018,

$12.75 on Dec. 31 2018,

$13.75 on Dec. 31 2019,

$14.50 on Dec. 31 2020,

and $15 on July 1st, 2021.

Cora Lewis is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Lewis reports on labor.

Contact Cora Lewis at cora.lewis@buzzfeed.com.

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