Advocates Call for Increase in Minimum Wage at Harlem Hearing

By Jeff Mays on April 24, 2012 7:21am 

Assemblyman Keith Wright (right) looks on as the Revs. Jamall Nelson, Georgette Morgan-Thomas, and Vernon Williams testify in favor of increasing minimum wage at an Assembly hearing in Harlem.
Assemblyman Keith Wright (right) looks on as the Revs. Jamall Nelson, Georgette Morgan-Thomas, and Vernon Williams testify in favor of increasing minimum wage at an Assembly hearing in Harlem.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — While working for minimum wage at a Target in Queens, Tashawna Green said she often had to make tough choices.

"There were times when I had to decide between paying the rent or buying food," Green, a mother of one, said Monday during a state Assembly hearing on increasing the minimum wage.

"We had to depend on public assistance to make ends meet...because what I got from my employer couldn't pay everything," she said of herself and some of her co-workers.

Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright, chairman of the Labor Committee, held the hearing in Harlem as part of a bill he introduced with Speaker Sheldon Silver to raise New York's minimum wage to $8.25 per hour next year from the current $7.25 per hour with automatic increases indexed to inflation.

Two more hearings are scheduled in Syracuse and Buffalo.

During the hearing, workers, business owners, clergy and economists argued that increasing the minimum wage would boost the economy while helping low-wage workers.

Opponents of the bill have said the increase will cost jobs and make it tougher to do business in the state. Conservative think tank the Empire Center said in a recently published paper that minimum wage workers already earn more than $10 an hour because they can take advantage of state and federal earned income tax credit.

James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, disputed those views. He said the wage increase would actually create 7,500 jobs and help tackle New York's wage disparity between high-income and low-wage workers.

Currently, a minimum-wage worker employed full time earns 25 percent of the city's average weekly salary.

In addition, low-income wage earners tend to spend extra money immediately, meaning that the economy will see a boost, Parrott said. He added that 18 other states currently have higher minimum wages than New York's, which currently matches the federal minimum wage.

Parrott also rebutted what he said were myths about who earns the minimum wage, saying ideas that teenagers and college students are the largest minimum-wage workers are incorrect.

Anthony Guzman, who worked as a stock person at JFK Airport, said he earned $8 per hour and lost his job when he tried to help organize a union for better wages. After 22 years in the same job, he said his father earned only $8.65 per hour.
Anthony Guzman, who worked as a stock person at JFK Airport, said he earned $8 per hour and lost his job when he tried to help organize a union for better wages. After 22 years in the same job, he said his father earned only $8.65 per hour.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

Nine out of every 10 workers who earn less than $8.50 an hour are adults and two-thirds are full-time employees, Parrott said.

Wright, a Democrat, said the criticism from Republicans over the proposal as a "job killer" was unfounded.

"Whenever we try to raise the minimum wage that is the refrain from the opponent," Wright said.

The Rev. Vernon Williams, president of the Harlem Clergy Community Leaders Coalition and Perfect Peace Ministries, said there was a link between poverty, youth violence and the minimum wage.

Erience Dickerson, owner of Eyes on the Prize, a child development center in Brooklyn that is opening a Harlem office, said that as a small business owner, he sees minimum-wage parents struggling to pay to send their children to his program for enrichment.

"If I, as a small business, can afford to give my employees $8.50 per hour and be open and functioning, then big business can do the same," he said. "It would be good to see the money going to the right place for once."

Anthony Guzman, who worked as a stock person at JFK Airport, said he earned $8 per hour and lost his job when he tried to help organize a union for better wages. After 22 years in the same job, he said his father earned only $8.65 per hour.

"You had people who had two and three jobs because they were trying to provide for their family," he said. "$8.50 an hour is still not enough to provide for your family, but something is better than nothing."

Parrott agreed. The largest sectors seeing job growth are the retail and restaurant businesses, which employ large numbers of minimum-wage earners. If the minimum wage had kept pace with the federal poverty index it would need to be raised to $10 by 2014 and then be indexed to consumer prices, he said.

"We should keep in mind we need to do more in future years but this is an important first step," Parrott said.

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