Higher minimum wage makes sense for state workers

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is taking a big step in terms of pay for state workers: He’s using his executive a

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is taking a big step in terms of pay for state workers: He’s using his executive authority to establish a state municipal minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Though surprising, this is a pretty positive move. You’d think that most state workers weren’t hovering around the poverty line – but at present, too many are. About 10,000 state workers — 6.5 percent of the total — will be affected.

I’ve argued in the past for a statewide $11.50 minimum hourly wage. For the sake of working families — and the economy, which would be helped by more money in workers’ pockets — I’d love to have an across-the-board minimum of $15 per hour.

I am, however, concerned that small businesses — especially those based upstate — would be negatively impacted by going that far so fast. (Ways to mitigate that impact are a topic for another column.)

But that small-business argument doesn’t apply when it’s state workers we’re talking about. Gov. Cuomo’s plan here is an easy, effective measure that will help thousands and send a message on higher wages through leading by example.

Importantly, it’s spaced out over a period of several years (similar to the governor’s statewide proposal and the much-derided fast-food-worker increase).

In fact, it would only be by the end of 2018 that state workers in New York City receive the full $15 per hour — with workers in the rest of the state having to wait until the end of 2021.

Now, rather than hearing about soon-to-be-unaffordable Big Macs, we’ll no doubt hear about the new burden on taxpayers this produces. Why, they’ll say, should taxpayers be responsible for paying state workers such an outrageous sum?

Yet the budgetary impact of this wage increase is so miniscule it’s barely worth mentioning.

Raising the minimum wage for state workers under this plan will cost us just $20.3 million per year when fully enacted — and, recall, that’s only by 2021.

That $20.3 million sounds like a lot, but here’s some perspective: The most recent state budget was $150 billion. Even if $15 per hour was to be implemented immediately, it would only be about 0.13 percent of the budget. That’s literally only a bit more than one dollar per person in New York state.

A certain segment of people will likely react by scoffing at the idea that office assistants and custodial staff deserve $15 per hour. This ignores a key fact: For the halls of government to work, there is a support system that needs to function as well — and a workforce that needs to commit time and energy to maintaining it. Is it so horrible that we grant these individuals a decent living for cleaning our public spaces? Or for doing the office work that needs to be done?

Or for watching the water so that kids down drown? (Lifeguards, too, will be impacted by this new policy. I think that’s a good thing.)

Conservatives frequently decry government inefficiency. Whether real or perceived, maybe by enticing the labor market with good pay, we’ll attract better talent and get more out of our existing employees.

The private sector knows this works — it’s why they pay CEOs exorbitant sums of money so as to hold onto the best talent in the business. Why does that argument not apply here?

In addition to the above, conservatives are very concerned this could set a standard of $15 per hour as the norm for minimum wage — even if such a norm is unofficial.

It should be noted that would actually be pretty good. Making sure that people working for the state are able to earn a decent wage for honest work is not just fiscally right — it’s morally right. Indeed, the opportunity to make $15 an hour for the state will create upward pressure on other entry-level wages — not so much because other employers (public and private) will find their labor pools drying up, but because Cuomo’s action sets a powerful example of the value of work.

It turns out some are already following Cuomo’s example. Rochester and Buffalo are following the governor’s lead and pushing to raise their municipal wages accordingly. Syracuse already acted on this count in October. County — and city-level governments across the state are expected to follow suit.

Let’s hope the idea spreads. Public service, including those positions which are less glamorous, should be something that we honor — not just with words, but with action.

In the absence of a higher minimum wage for all, we should encourage those considering working for the people — whatever that work happens to be — by making sure they earn a decent wage for themselves and their families.

Maybe we’ll get better public service and servants out of it, too. At a cost of a single McChicken for each of us, I think that’s a worthwhile experiment.

Steve Keller of Averill Park is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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