What Does A Living Wage Mean In New York?

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At first glance, the Queens Center Mall is no different from any mall you’d find in any suburb in the country. There’s an H&M, an Applebee’s, and kiosk workers baiting you with hair straighteners. Escalators gently glide up and down, connecting wide hallways interspersed with families and teenagers. There’s a gentle echo and general sense of warm, fluorescent well-being.

But starting in 2009, this mall, owned by the Macerich Company, was the site of a protest that would drag on for years. Despite receiving $100 million in tax exemptions, the average wage for retail and service employees at the Queens Center Mall was $7.72 an hour, just slightly above the state minimum wage at the time, $7.25. Protesters mounted a campaign demanding that tenants at the mall be required to pay their workers a “living wage.” The battle with the city and the mall’s owners lasted for several years, but wages at the mall haven’t budged above the state minimum, which has now edged up to $8 an hour.

What, exactly, is a living wage? According to data compiled by MIT, a single adult living in New York City in 2014 would have to make a minimum of $12.75 to earn a living wage, or one that would cover “basic needs” and “would enable the working poor to achieve financial independence while maintaining housing and food security.”

But if you ask Amador Rivas, a Cuban immigrant who came to the US in 1996, you’d hear a different answer. “Workers should be able to make enough income so they can pay their rent, so they don’t have to worry about putting food on the table, so that they can purchase medicine and healthcare in case they get sick,” Rivas said. “But even beyond that, they should have some extra money so that if they want to do something fun with their families they can enjoy themselves.”

Rivas has worked at almost every low paying job imaginable, from manufacturing to food service. He even had a stint working behind the counter at a bodega for less than minimum wage. Though currently unemployed and collecting disability, Rivas still serves on the Brooklyn Workers Committee at Make the Road, one of the organizations behind the mall protests, which has grown from a small neighborhood operation helping immigrants collect public benefits to a massive nonprofit network of workers and activists fighting for the civil rights of low-income residents across New York. Over the past twenty years, Make the Road has connected immigrants and workers with one another, and advocated for other people who might otherwise have few resources.

Rivas brings his experiences as an overworked and underpaid employee to his work at Make the Road. “We meet every Tuesday night,” Rivas explained. “And it’s sad to come to the workers’ meeting every week and hear more and more workers who are new to the organization share the same stories about how they’ve been exploited, and how they’ve had their wages stolen. It just never ends.”

Some of the stories come from the activists themselves like Aracelly Cantos, 28, who is part of the group’s Queens committee. She came here from Ecuador three years ago “with a bag of clothes.” Cantos currently has a job in customer service for a home health aide company, where she earns $9.50 an hour. Though she’s single, Aracelly must still provide for her family members—her mother is recovering from cancer and has been unable to work. She admitted: “It’s been so difficult at times to pay my rent.”

But Rivas and Cantos now have reason for optimism. At the end of September, Mayor de Blasio signed an executive order to expand the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act to cover more workers (including retail and restaurant employees working in new city-funded projects like Hudson Yards) and bring the hourly wage up from $11.90 to $13.13. Rivas was present at the signing, along with other activists, union organizers, and elected officials.

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“With this order thousands of bread-winners will earn higher wages and be more likely to receive the kind of benefits critical to supporting a family,” de Blasio announced at the ceremony. “From today’s executive order to the expansion of paid sick leave to our overhaul of workforce development, we are working to lift up working people and confront inequality.”

The Mayor’s office described the expansion as a “sweeping” one, and estimated it would cover 18,000 jobs. From here on out, employers receiving new city subsidies and those whose businesses occupy spaces at future city-funded projects will have to pay their workers at least $13.13 an hour. (The number is based on the Consumer Price Index, which takes into account the cost of food, energy, and other basic necessities. The Mayor’s office projects the minimum will rise to $15.22 per hour by 2019.) City-funded projects already in existence, however, like the Queens Center Mall, will not be covered under the adjustment.

The expansion lives up to a specific campaign promise, and it’s also in step with the progressive platform on which de Blasio won the election. But unlike policy measures such as paid sick leave, it doesn’t cover a significant number of the city’s workers. The vast majority of the positions under the expansion’s umbrella are already well-paying ones, like temporary construction jobs on site at city-funded projects. The rest, an estimated 4,000 jobs, are retail or customer service positions that usually start at minimum wage or just above, and restaurant positions where tipped employees earn even less.

Though it’s a significant improvement, the new minimum wage standard still falls short.

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“It is certainly more of a living wage, but we are calling for a much higher level,” explained Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road. “Fifteen dollars is more along the lines of what our lowest wage workers should make, but we’re excited that we’re gaining traction on $13.13 at least. It’s really a symbolic statement that our Mayor is standing with us demanding our city’s right to enforce dignified wages in our workplaces.”

The Mayor’s Office defended the expansion. “To be clear, those cities that have had big, flashy $15 minimum wage announcements—those are actually similarly pegged to the consumer price index. They bill it as a $15 minimum wage, but again, they’re not going to reach that until 2020,” Wiley Norvell, the Mayor’s Deputy Press Secretary explained. “So what New York City is doing is equally if not more aggressive.”

The expansion of the Fair Wages Act represents, essentially, a turnaround at the executive level. When the City Council passed the Fair Wages Act in 2012, it designated an hourly wage of $11.90 but carved out exceptions, including for tenants of city subsidized projects and work related to the Hudson Yards project. Still, Michael Bloomberg attempted to sue the city council to stop it. A judge threw out the case, but just weeks before he left office in 2013, Bloomberg tried again. The legal battle wasn’t fully resolved until de Blasio came into office and officially dropped the case, just months before the expansion.

While a few cities across the country have enacted higher minimum wages, in New York, cities do not have the authority to determine their own minimum wage standards. That could change with a proposal backed by Governor Cuomo. Should the measure pass, New York City would be granted the authority to enact a city-wide minimum wage of up to $13 an hour.

But there’s another widespread labor policy up for debate: the sub-minimum wage, or the dollar amount restaurant employers must pay their employees. At $5 an hour, New York’s standard is well above the federal minimum ($2.13), but employers can allocate up to $3 of their workers’ tips to meet the total minimum pay of $8 an hour. In the case that tips are low or non-existent, many employers fail to compensate their employees the difference.

To address concerns that the sub-minimum wage is inadequate and difficult to enforce, Governor Cuomo convened the Wage Board, which held various meetings across the state where service industry workers, restaurant and bar owners, lobbyists, labor experts, workers’ advocates, and others have testified about their experiences or research regarding the current sub-minimum wage.

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In early October, the Wage Board met in Harlem, and for several hours members heard dozens of witnesses testify. Many workers from Make The Road were present, as well as workers associated with other labor organizations, such as Fast Food Forward, and unions, like Unite Here Local 100.

Alexandra San Juan, a single mother of two who came to the United States in 1988, lives in Manhattan, and has been working as a server for over a decade. “It’s not uncommon for me to receive less than $200 a week,” she told the board. “Sometimes I lose the tips I earn on transportation costs.” She added: “In all the years I have been working, I’ve never had a restaurant owner compensate my salary when I’ve earned less than minimum wage.”

Other witnesses argued against an increase. A director of human resources at Epicurean Management, a company that operates four restaurants in the city and provides their workers with subsidized health care, opposed changes to the current law. “We fear we will have to lay off employees, and it will halve our growth ability,” she said.

Stephanie Luce, a Professor at CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, was also present at the Wage Board hearing. As a researcher who has focused on living wage policies and movements for over 20 years, she argued in favor of raising the tipped wage. “It takes $11.50 an hour just for a single [unmarried] worker to reach the poverty line,” she said. “Without a higher wage, workers rely on programs. Fast food workers alone cost the nation billions of dollars in public assistance, and about 40 percent of restaurant workers live in poverty. And that’s the fastest growing industry.”

Two more workers I spoke with from Make the Road shared their experiences with subminimum wage. In the case of Juana Alvarez, her family of four relies solely on her husband’s income from delivering pizzas. Juana was compelled to leave her job five years ago when her third child was born because the cost of childcare would have been more than her earnings.

How much Mr. Alvarez takes home on any given night depends on the customers’ willingness to tip. “We struggle to give our kids a good life,” she said. “It’s very stressful because every week his pay is different.” When her husband asked for a raise at a previous job, his employer advised him to “apply for food stamps.”

Even Isidro Suarez, 34, single, and working as a busboy earning subminimum wage plus tips, struggles to pay his bills. “I sometimes have to work two weeks to be able to afford $480 a month for rent,” he said. “I only send home what I can, so unfortunately I can’t send any money sometimes.”

While officials debate whether or not an increase is appropriate, some industries, even those without a strong tradition of worker organization, are seeking ways to address the issue of inadequate pay. Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) is an activist group that advocates for a regulated system by which artists can receive payment from the nonprofits that contract their labor.

“It’s interesting because I think, in the U.S., there is no single standard or criteria by which the minimum wage is developed, and in this case, it’s a similar problem,” Lise Soskolne, core organizer of W.A.G.E., explained. “In the arts, developing a compensation standard can simply take the form of ‘Does this seem fair?’ or ‘Does this seem right?’”

In 2010, the organization conducted a survey of nearly 1,000 artists who had exhibited in nonprofit spaces in New York City since 2005. The survey found that more than half of those artists received no compensation (of any form) for the exhibition, nor did they receive reimbursement for expenses.

W.A.G.E took a pragmatic approach to address the issue and established a certification program, whereby nonprofits that follow their set of compensation standards and “voluntarily pay the artist fees meeting a minimum payment standard,” can receive their stamp of approval. A fee calculator is part of the program and helps artists determine how much they should be charging nonprofits for various types of exhibitions as well as how much nonprofits should be compensating artists. The fee structure, Soskolne explained, is based more on concrete criteria rather than a loose definition of what seems fair.

“One problem in the remuneration of artistic labor is that there’s really no practical way to account for all the labor that goes into making something, since much of it is unquantifiable—whether it’s time spent in the studio, thinking on the subway, or research in the context of something social like a reading group,” she said. “W.A.G.E. certification’s compensation standards are intended to address the labor performed once an artist enters into a transactional relationship with a nonprofit to produce an exhibition or program.”

Soskolne pointed out the connection between her organization’s effort to regulate nonprofit practices and the logic behind de Blasio’s expansion. Whereas nonprofit art organizations are exempt from paying taxes, the businesses that fall under the new living wage standards are receiving money directly from the city government. However, both types of entities are benefitting from the government in some way, and likewise both policies attach a certain set of standards to government funds.

In light of the Republican Party’s sweep of the New York State Senate, it seems that hopes for raising the minimum wage statewide have been dashed. But Dr. Luce pointed out that, according to polling data from the past several decades, voters across party lines have supported raising the minimum wage but both Democrat and Republican politicians have consistently voted against increases.

“There’s a disconnect between what voters on both sides want and what politicians are doing,” she said. “I think a lot of politicians fear that if they raise wages it will make them look like they’re not friendly to business.”

But workers and activists insist they will continue to fight regardless. “We will continue the grassroots movement to demand that we finally get common sense, and all the polls indicate that we should,” Deborah Axt of Make the Road said.

Mayor de Blasio seems undeterred by the Democrats’ losses. At a press conference he responded to a suggestion that the GOP’s success is a sign that his progressive politics are falling out of favor. “It’s very interesting on a national level that some states that we would consider fairly conservative states […] in referendums voted for an increase in the minimum wage. There’s no question that people all over New York State, all over this country, are hurting economically and want to see solutions from their government,” he said. “I agree with you, a lot of Republicans are going to try and resist that. I think they will do that at their own peril.”

And some feel that backing for stricter labor standards is stronger now than ever. “There’s a lot more support than I’ve seen before. And I really think that’s because people understand the need for a low wage worker to make a little more to survive in a city as expensive as New York,” Amador Rivas said. “We’ve seen lots of workers’ organizations get involved, lots of unions get involved, we’ve seen churches get involved.”
During my visit to the Queens Center Mall, I went to a few stores where employees and managers were too busy to talk. But an Applebee’s tucked into one of the adjacent hallway on the first floor looked empty. It was just before the lunch rush, so I stopped in. I told the hostess I was a journalist and asked if I could speak to the manager. She looked at me suspiciously, but told me I could take a seat wherever I wanted and the manager would be with me shortly.

I waited for 20 minutes before the hostess approached me again. “What did you want to talk to her about?” she asked. “Oh, the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act and minimum wage,” I told her. Again, she looked at me like I was crazy. “The what?” I repeated my answer, and the hostess echoed a garbled, misunderstood version of what I’d said into a walkie talkie. Clearly, she’d never heard of it. I waited for another 20 minutes, but no one came.

I got up and left, remembering some-thing that Make the Road’s Deborah Axt had told me: “The city was never willing to say [to tenants at places like Queens Center Mall], ‘Hey if you’re benefiting from massive subsidies and taxpayer dollars, you have to actually make sure that the leases in your building are going to create decent jobs with dignity,’” she said. “That’s what’s key about this expansion—it’s critical as a practical matter, and as a matter of principle.”

But the work isn’t done yet. As Rivas put it, “We need to make sure all workers of every industry have access to a living wage so they can support their families.”

Photographs by Dani Zorzy

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