SAN FRANCISCO— The push for a higher minimum wage gained momentum on both sides of the country, with New York embracing an eventual $15 an hour for the state’s 200,000 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,” UC President Janet Napolitano, who oversees 10 campuses, including UCLA and Berkeley, said of Wednesday’s action. “It’s the right thing to do.”
The 240,000-student University of California becomes the nation’s first public university to commit itself to the $15-an-hour wage that has become the rallying cry of many labor groups in recent months.
Organizers have clamored for a $15 minimum wage in Minnesota in recent months but so far the effort hasn’t gained as much traction as it has elsewhere in the country. The state will see a more modest minimum wage increase Aug. 1.
For companies that generate $500,000 or more in gross revenue, the minimum pay threshold will jump from $8 to $9 per hour. That pay will rise again to $9.50 on Aug. 1, 2016. Employers with less revenue will have to pay workers $7.25 per hour starting Aug. 1, up from $6.50. That will tick up to $7.75 per hour next year.
So far, the cities of Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley have approved phased-in increases that eventually will take their minimum wage to $15 an hour, or about $31,200 a year. On Tuesday, Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous county, voted to craft a law to do the same over five years.
In New York, the state Wage Board on Wednesday 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’s administration has the final say, and he has signaled his support. New York would become the first state to single out a specific industry for such an increase. The state minimum wage is now $8.75.
“You cannot live and support a family on $18,000 a year in the state of New York — period,” Cuomo said at a New York City rally celebrating the proposal. “This is just the beginning. We will not stop until we reach true economic justice.”
Restaurant owners warned that higher wages could force them to raise prices, cut employee hours and hire fewer workers, and they said they may challenge the move in court.
“Singling out fast-food restaurants while ignoring other industries that hire workers who are paid under $15 is unfair and discriminatory,” said Jack Bert, who owns seven McDonald’s restaurants in New York City.
But Rebecca Cornick, a 60-year-old woman who makes $9 an hour at a Wendy’s in Brooklyn, said, “If I made $15, I could pay my rent on time, I could put food on the table, I could hold my head up.”
At the University of California, the hourly wage earners include students and full-time contract employees who work in dining halls, dorms and bookstores or labor as gardeners, housekeepers and custodians. Many start at the state minimum wage 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 will raise it some more in stages to $15 by the fall of 2017.
About 3,200 UC employees and a much larger but undetermined number of people employed by outside contractors at the university will receive the higher wage, UC said. The university is California’s third-largest employer, with a staff of 195,000.
“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 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 higher wages will kill jobs and lead to higher prices. Sixteen states have passed laws barring local governments from setting their own minimum wage.
Staff writer Karlee Weinmann contributed to this story.