"What do we want? Fifteen! When do we want it? Now!"
These are the words that echoed through the Capitol as low-wage fast-food workers filled the halls to voice their need for a $15 minimum wage at the wage board hearing convened by the New York State Labor Department. The hearing brought one heart-wrenching story after another of extreme poverty despite hard work. Workers implored, often becoming emotional, for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, not as a means to live extravagantly, but as a means to simply live.
Representing NYSUT at the June 22 hearing was Cheryl Rockhill, a bus and school monitor who also is a fast-food worker from the North Country. She spoke of her family's constant struggle to pay bills, living paycheck to paycheck, even though her husband is employed, and she herself works 60-plus hours a week. Her voice shook as she recounted, "Recently my son made a comment about how we could never afford to go on family trips to great places like Disney World and such. As a parent who has worked two jobs my entire adult career, I felt hurt by that. Not because of his comment, but because no matter how hard I worked I never made enough to run a fitting household and support the needs — not wants, but needs — of my children. Why didn't I have extra money for the great outings? It was because of low wages."
New York State's minimum wage of $8.75 an hour is slated to go up to $9 on Dec. 31. Though such increases are progress, they do not come close to touching the minimum wage necessary to make ends meet in this state. Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage peaked in 1968 at $8.54 per hour (in 2014 dollars). Though the minimum wage has increased over the decades, it has not done so at a fast enough pace to keep up with the increase in cost of living, ultimately making those working for minimum wage increasingly worse off.
The Fight for 15 began as an advocacy movement for fast-food workers to earn a living wage and gain better working conditions. Though Albany's wage board hearing was focused on fast-food employees, it is important to note that this fight does not end with them. According to Pew Research Center, the top five employers of the most near-minimum wage workers are food services, grocery stores, department and discount stores, construction, and elementary and secondary schools. It takes more than a teacher to educate a child; NYSUT members also include bus drivers, school nurses, teaching assistants, custodial and maintenance staff, and clerical and office support officials. These are the people that ensure our schools run smoothly, and our children are properly cared for. However, when many fall among the lowest wage earners in our community, it is not right.
Within the chant of the crowd at the wage board - "The workers united, will never be defeated" - lies a take-home message. When we band together and demand action, change and progress occur. All minimum wage and near-minimum wage workers deserve the right to earn enough money to support themselves and their families; that's the essence of the American dream, after all. Poverty wages are not acceptable, and not representative of the freedom we stand for as a nation.
The wage board hearing is just the beginning of this necessary justice. The board's decision is expected to be announced by the end of the summer.