by Karen Rubin, news-photos-features.com
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has been crisscrossing the state, rallying support to make New York the first state in the nation to enact a $15 minimum wage for all workers. He is also pushing a plan enabling 12 weeks of parental leave – the most of any state. These are cornerstones of his “Fight for Economic Justice” campaign which he dedicated to his father, the former Governor Mario Cuomo.
On a single day, following rallies in Manhattan and the Bronx, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo traveled by bus to Westbury, Long Island’s “Yes We Can” community center on his “Drive for $15” tour to make his pitch.
The Governor has already secured a phased in hike of the minimum wage to $15 for fast food workers, and in January, announced that the State University of New York will raise the minimum wage for more than 28,000 employees, mirroring the phased-in schedule for fast food workers secured last year, as well as 10,000 State Workers announced in October.
“If you work full time, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty – which is why it’s time for New York to lead the way and pass a $15 minimum wage,” said Governor Cuomo, who secured an increase in the state’s minimum wage for all workers to $9 in 2013. “Raising the minimum wage will provide new opportunity and restore economic justice to millions of New Yorkers. Our proposal will lift families out of poverty and create a stronger economy for all, and I urge lawmakers to help us fight for fair pay for working families this year.”
The “Yes We Can” community center in Westbury was crammed with union workers – particularly health care workers who now average $10 an hour.
The renewed push comes on the heels of Governor Cuomo’s recently released minimum wage report which found that raising the minimum wage to $15 would benefit more than 2.3 million workers and boost direct spending power by more than $15.7 billion in New York State. The Governor is urging the State Legislature to pass his phased-in minimum wage proposal this session.
“This is about fundamental fairness,” Governor Cuomo said. “That’s what this is about – being fair to people, being decent to people, understanding that we are all one community and that we are connected to each other, and as goes one goes all. That’s what this is about: fairness. Fairness. Something happened in this country. Something happened in the economy. It changed on us. It changed about thirty years ago and it’s been getting worse. The economy is running. We’ve worked very hard to create jobs. I’m very proud to be able to say we’ve created more jobs in the state of New York than have ever existed in the history of the state of New York and that’s a beautiful thing.
“That is a beautiful thing, but those jobs are different than the economy used to be. If you have the right skillset, or the right access, and you get one of the jobs up at the top end of the spectrum… millionaires, billionaires are making more than ever before. The top earners are making more money at a faster rate. But that’s a very small slice of the jobs and for the middle class and the working family jobs, the pay is actually going down and the respect and the dignity that goes with those jobs is being devalued by this country in this economy. And that is wrong.”
He said this has been a pattern that has been going on for decades, and not just in New York but around the country: it used to be that workers’ incomes would rise with productivity – which is fair. But that ended in the mid-1970s: since 1973, while productivity has grown by 90 percent, workers’ pay only went up 9%.
“The work – the concept of work – is being disrespected,” he said, invoking the words of a health care worker who depends on government assistance, despite putting in a full week’s work, caring for people who cannot care for themselves.”
The Federal minimum wage is $7. New York raised the minimum wage to $9. but at $9, “the numbers don’t work. $9 is about $18,000 a year. You cannot support a family in the state of New York on $18,000 a year. You cannot do it. You certainly can’t do it and have any decent lifestyle. You can’t do it and pay rent and pay food and pay for clothes. It just doesn’t work.”
People can’t support a family on minimum wage and they certainly cannot get ahead as earlier generations could aspire. That was the American Dream.
“People don’t have that same hope anymore. People don’t believe that anymore. They’re worried about their own retirement. They’re worried about children. They’re worried about their children’s education. If you take that aspiration away from people, then America’s not America and New York’s isn’t New York.”
The solution, he said, is to “restore the dignity, the pride and the aspiration and we pay people a decent wage to provide a decent lifestyle and that is $15 an hour.”
He said that opposition – from big business, big corporations – is already lining up, claiming that $15 is too high.
But, if you take the minimum wage in 1970, and increase it by the rate of inflation, it comes to $15 – so at $15, workers are having the same purchasing power as in 1970.
He said the opposition then claims that setting a minimum wage “is government meddling in the private market place. Government shouldn’t interfere with the private market place”. But, he countered, government is already in the “private market place” because $18,000 – the annual wage at $9 – is still below the poverty line, so government is forced to step in and subsidize McDonalds and Burger King workers with welfare and food stamps. The subsidy winds up averaging $7,000 per employee, totaling $700 million a year for New York taxpayers.
“So you say to our conservative friends when they say, “Well you shouldn’t be in the market place” you say, “Yea we want to get out of the market place, let the corporations pay a decent wage so we don’t have to put the food on the table of people who are getting shafted by the system.”
A report by the State Department of Labor (available here) details the impact of a $15 minimum wage for New York workers and their families. In total, 2.3 million New Yorkers will earn higher wages and as a result, increase spending power by more than $15.7 billion across New York State. The Governor is urging the State Legislature to pass his phased-in minimum wage proposal this session. Key findings:
- Millions of New Yorkers will earn higher pay. 2.3 million New Yorkers – about a quarter of the total workforce – will experience higher pay, increasing spending power by more than $15.7 billion.1
- The vast majority of minimum wage earners are adults. Half of minimum wage earners in New York State are 35 or older and outside of New York City, more than 70 percent are over the age of 25. More than 40 percent are married, parents or both and many provide the main source of their family’s income.2
- The current minimum wage is not a decent living wage.Today, a full time job at New York’s minimum wage pays only $18,720 per year. For a single mother with two children, that’s below the official poverty line.
- The Governor’s proposal corrects 40 years of economic injustice. A $15 minimum wage by 2021 is about where New York’s minimum wage in 1970 would be, if adjusted for inflation and cost of living differences.3
- It’s important for New York’s economic growth. New York increased its minimum wage eight times from 1991 through 2015 and six of those times, the data shows an employment uptick following an increase in the state’s minimum wage.4
On Long Island, 382,236 workers would earn higher wages by raising the minimum wage to $15, increasing spending power by $2.5 billion. For a statewide breakdown, view page four of the minimum wage report.
“The economic benefits of increasing the minimum wage outweigh the costs. But to provide businesses with the opportunity to plan, and in order to be sensitive to the relative abilities of different regional economies to absorb the change, the proposal phases-in the increase in New York’s minimum wage in New York City (in four steps by the end of 2018) and more gradually in the rest of the state (over seven steps by July 2021).
Proposes 12 Week Paid Family Leave
The Governor is also proposing that New York enact a 12 week paid family leave policy – which would be the longest benefits period in the nation for such a policy – to help working families care for a new child or seriously ill relative. The program would be funded by employees – employers would pay nothing – who would pay about 70 cents a week into a fund.
“Along with the disrespect that goes to the worker in this current economy – there is a lack of power that the employee has,” he said. “The employee is treated more like a commodity.”
“The worker doesn’t have that same power and relationship with the employer that they used to have. So if something happens and you need to do something in your life – because there is more than work – there’s something called life. You have to balance the two, you shouldn’t have to choose between going broke, losing your job, or doing the right thing at home. That should not be a choice.”
The United States is one of only three nations on the globe that does not have paid family leave and the other two are Suriname and Papua New Guinea.
Cuomo’s proposal though is not for employers to pay – the cost to employers would be zero – but to have employees pay into a fund about 70 cents a week, so they could get up to $700 a week in benefits for up to 12 weeks.
“The opposition is going to say, ‘The cost is very expensive for business.’ You know what it costs business? Zero. Nada, scatta, niente, nulo, whatever language you want. It costs them nothing. It is all paid by the employees. They say they may need to hire someone in the meantime if the person takes off. Fine, but they’re not paying first person, so they wind up neutral. It has no effect economically on businesses and it makes a world of difference in respect and livability for an employee. That we also have to pass this year. If we do $15 minimum wage, and we do paid family leave, we will have done something. We will have changed people’s lives and that is what this is all about.”
“This is fairness for all. This is opportunity for all. This is mobility for all. This is decency for all. This is New York State, we’re not going to treat each other with nothing less than total respect. We don’t care if the big corporations are against us, we have the people with us. We are going to pass it in the state of New York, we’re going to pass it this year, and we’re going to say to the rest of the nation, ‘It doesn’t have to be this way, you can have an economy that works for everyone where everyone is stronger and the greatest feast has the most people at the table.’ That is what we believe in New York and we are going to make it real here and it will be a wave that goes from one end of this country to the other.”
“There are times in life when family comes first – like when a child is born, a loved one is sick, or a parent is dying – and I believe everyone deserves the right to be there in those times,” Governor Cuomo told the Long Island rally. “The lack of paid family leave is a rampant economic injustice that runs against the grain of the American promise. It’s unacceptable that people are still forced to choose between caring for their families and keeping their jobs, and we’re going to change that in New York. We’re going to pass 12 weeks of paid family leave and stand up for what’s really important in life – and I urge all New Yorkers to join us in this fight.”
Governor Cuomo’s proposal would ensure 12 weeks of job-protected, employee-funded leave to be used for caring for a new child or a sick relative. It would also guarantee employees the right to return to their current job upon their return from leave and bring discrimination actions to the extent that their rights are violated.
The Need for Paid Family Leave
Paid family leave is currently offered by every developed nation on the planet – except for the United States. Within the U.S., only California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have such a program, and none offer benefits for longer than six weeks. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor has reported that a mere 12 percent of private sector workers are offered paid family leave by their employers.
While the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave, because of various exemptions, 40 percent of American workers are left out. Even for those who are covered by the FMLA, taking time off to care for a new child or sick relative often means workers are forced to forego wages, use up savings or vacation time, or even risk losing their jobs in order to care for new children or sick relatives.
“This injustice is particularly acute for low-income workers. In New York, nearly 50 percent of low-income working mothers have $500 or less in savings, and more than 33 percent have no savings. Without paid family leave, low-income workers are also more likely to utilize public assistance after the birth of a child or serious illness in the family.”
In addition to parents with new children, paid family leave is a crucial benefit to families caring for an ailing loved one – especially elderly relatives. More than 90 percent of elderly people receiving care in the community rely on the support and care of their loved ones, either independently or along with paid help – and two-thirds of older Americans receive care solely from their family members. Seventy-eight percent of people who care for elderly relatives are employed, and 62 percent report working full time. Furthermore, with growing life expectancies nationally and an aging population, the need for elder care is expected to increase in the coming years.
Proven Benefits and Support
Governor Cuomo’s proposal for 12 weeks of paid family leave offers a number of broad and important benefits to working families, businesses, and the state’s economy. This includes economic security and better health outcomes for families, greater workforce longevity and productivity for businesses, and a stronger economy for all.
Paid family leave supports families: Steady income and employment are crucial for families caring for new children or sick loved ones – and especially so for low-income families. Paid family leave offers crucial economic security that enables working families to respond to unique medical needs and costs, keep up with general living expenses and avoid poverty or the need for public assistance. Additionally, paid family leave is proven to help women remain in the workforce after having a child and increase their wages over time. Paid family leave is also a factor in boosting positive health outcomes for young families – with benefits such as increased birth weight, decreased frequencies of premature birth, and a substantial decrease in infant mortality. In cases of ill relatives, paid family leave also helps patients stick to prescribed treatment plans and check-ups, avoid complications, and ultimately return to good health.
Paid family leave supports businesses: Providing paid family leave also has numerous benefits for employers. Research from the U.S. Department of Labor shows that paid family leave helps businesses retain workers and avoid turnover – which ultimately helps reduce recruitment and training costs. Having access to paid family leave can also boost productivity, engagement, and loyalty among a business’ employees.
Paid family leave supports the economy: Increasing access to paid family leave will result in a stronger economy and workforce. When working parents or caregivers are able to remain in the workforce while tending to children or sick loved ones, they are also more likely to continue progressing in their careers and increasing their wages over time. This in turn yields greater support for their families, greater economy activity in their communities, and a more vibrant workforce overall. Additionally, paid family leave helps address the gaps in opportunity faced by low-income, minority and less educated workers.
Paid family leave has widespread public support: In a recent poll conducted by the Roosevelt Institute, the vast majority – 83 percent – of respondents supported paid family leave. That support crossed party lines, with 96 percent of Democrats, 85 percent of Independents and 67 percent of Republicans voicing support. Additionally, in a business survey after California’s paid family leave policy had been in effect for five years, 91 percent of employers reported the effect of the policy was either not noticeable or positive.
The Governor has launched a new website, www.ny.gov/paidfamilyleave, for New Yorkers to learn more about the need for paid family leave and the benefits of his proposal.
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