Higher minimum-wage proposals gain ground in New York and California; $15 an hour is the goal

Associated Press

The push for a higher minimum wage gained momentum on both sides of country Wednesday, with a New York labor board endorsing an eventual $15 an hour for the state's 150,000 fast-food workers and the huge University of California system announcing the same raise for its employees.

"How we support our workers and their families impacts Californians who might never set foot on one of our campuses," said UC President Janet Napolitano, who oversees 10 campuses, including UCLA and Berkley. "It's the right thing to do."

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The twin moves follow similar steps by local governments and employers to give workers something close to what labor activists call a "living wage."

Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley have all approved phased-in increases that eventually will take their minimum wage to $15 an hour, or about $31,200 for a full-time job. On Tuesday, Los Angeles County, the nation's most populous county, voted to craft a law to raise the minimum to $15 over five years.

In New York, the state Wage Board endorsed a proposal to set a $15 minimum wage for workers at fast-food restaurants with 30 or more locations. The increase would be phased in over three years in New York City and over six years elsewhere.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose administration must approve the idea, has signaled his support. New York would become the first state to take such a step for a specific industry. The state minimum wage is now $8.75 an hour and is set to rise to $9 at year's end.

Many workers say the increase would allow them to cope with the high cost of living, though restaurant owners say it will lead to higher prices and fewer jobs.

At the University of California, UC's hourly wage earners — a group that includes students and full-time employees working in dining halls, dorms and bookstores or as gardeners, housekeepers and custodians at campuses and hospitals — currently make the state minimum of $9 an hour.

Napolitano said she will boost that to $13 in October for employees who work at least 20 hours a week and raise it some more in stages to $15 by the fall of 2017.

UC has nearly 240,000 students and is California's third-largest employer, with a staff of 195,000. About 3,200 UC employees and a much larger but undetermined number of workers hired by university contractors will receive the higher wage, UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said.

"I just thought it was important for a public university to plant the flag here for low-wage workers and a more livable wage," said Napolitano, who was President Barack Obama's homeland security secretary before she assumed leadership of the University of California nearly two years ago.

The higher minimum-wage argument has gained traction amid concerns over the shrinking middle class and rising income inequality.

Supporters argue a higher wage floor will help lift the working poor into the middle class. Opponents warn businesses will have to raise prices, shed jobs or cut employees' hours. Sixteen states have passed laws barring local governments from setting their own minimum wage.

Democrats, including presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, have said they support a higher federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour.

Vice President Joe Biden was scheduled to promote a higher minimum wage during a stop Wednesday at a washroom equipment manufacturer in Los Angeles.

Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, announced early this year that it is raising wages for a half-million employees to at least $10 an hour by next February.

The $15 minimum has become the rallying cry of labor groups nationwide who argue the base wage hasn't kept up with inflation.

University of California officials estimated that the raises for workers directly employed by UC will cost $14 million a year, a fraction of the system's $12.6 billion annual payroll. Klein said UC also predicts contractors will pass some of the cost of higher wages onto the university.

Napolitano's minimum wage plan does not need approval from the governing Board of Regents, who on Wednesday were scheduled to consider a 3 percent cost-of-living increase for campus chancellors, medical center directors and other top executives.

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Klepper reported from Albany, N.Y.

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This story has been corrected to show that the number of affected employees is about 3,200 instead of 4,200.