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Marlene Kennedy, a longtime business editor in the Capital Region, can be reached by email at marlenejkennedy@gmail.com.

Down to Business: A late push for higher state wage

Thursday, May 31, 2012
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With less than a month left in the 2012 legislative session, there’s a good chance a higher minimum wage won’t become law in New York anytime soon.

That didn’t dissuade business owners and advocates from holding a conference call with reporters last week to talk up their support for raising the state’s base wage for hourly workers. “This is something whose time is past due,” said Mark Jaffe, president and CEO of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce in Manhattan.

New York’s minimum wage has increased 10 cents in the past five years. It matches the federal minimum, but is lower than in 18 other states — including neighboring Massachusetts and Vermont — and the District of Columbia. Two weeks ago, the state Assembly approved legislation to set the minimum wage at $8.50 an hour beginning Jan. 1 — $1.25 above the current rate — and index it to inflation. The Senate, though, hasn’t followed suit, focusing instead on a package of bills to cut business taxes in an effort to boost the state’s economy.

But those who want a higher minimum wage in New York see a better economy as the end result, too. They’ve penned a statement of support for the $8.50-an-hour rate and have signed up business groups and individuals who believe the higher wage “makes good business sense.”

“They absolutely think there’s time to get it done [in the 2012 session] and it’s the right time to get it done,” Holly Sklar, director of the nonprofit Business for Shared Prosperity, told reporters on the conference call. Her group oversees the website Business for a Fair Minimum Wage that is coordinating support to raise the minimum wage in New York and other states.

While business support for a higher wage seems counterintuitive, companies large and small have signed on. Warehouse-club giant Costco starts its workers at $11 an hour, said Jeff Long, the company’s senior vice president for the Northeast, a rate that keeps morale high and turnover low. For the mom-and-pop firms, a higher minimum wage means more money circulating in the local economy, said Melanie Beam, president of Capital District Local First, an association of independent businesses in Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady counties.

Indeed, minimum-wage workers are more likely to spend their earnings immediately on necessities, according to the National Employment Law Project, an advocate for low-wage workers, and that money will most likely be spent at Main Street businesses.

Beam said that’s why Capital District Local First supports raising New York’s minimum wage: “If we have a higher minimum wage, we’ll have more dollars circulating into those local communities.” Without it, she said, “People working two jobs, relying on public assistance, can’t participate in the local economy” because both time and money are tight.

Paul Sonn, a minimum-wage expert with the National Employment Law Project, told reporters on the conference call that there’s a misconception that small business is hurt when the minimum wage is raised. In fact, it’s the large chains that feel the impact, he said, because they employ the bulk of low-wage workers.

Beam, who estimated an average $10-an-hour starting wage among many of the businesses in her group, said the independents believe they can still be competitive even with a higher minimum wage.

Asked to predict whether the Senate and governor will follow the Assembly and back a higher minimum wage for New York, Beam chuckled and said that might not occur this session. But, she added, “It is something that will happen.”

 
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