Workers Raise Their Voices for $15 Minimum Wage

Héctor Figueroa, President of the 32BJ SEIU union (left,) and Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

Héctor Figueroa, president of the 32BJ SEIU union (left), and Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

As José Carrillo cleans the lobby and the tables at a McDonald’s on 168th Street, he dreams of the day when he will be able to save enough to retire. However, at 82 years old and working 23 hours per week at $8.75 per hour, reaching that goal seems impossible.

“If I made $15 an hour, I would be able to cover my basic needs without the government’s assistance and help my son and my grandson,” Carrillo told the wage board during Monday’s public hearing.

The hearing was the second in a series of four scheduled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to examine a raise in minimum wage for fast-food employees. Monday’s testimonies were offered by more than 40 people from all walks of life, including workers, students, university professors, union leaders, entrepreneurs and politicians.

“This is certainly democracy in action,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who was one of the three members of the wage board assigned to review the testimonies and deliver recommendations to the governor.

One of the first people to speak was Shantel Walker, an employee at Papa John’s Pizza, who chanted “¡Sí se puede!” in Spanish as she approached the podium. “Right now, I am behind on my rent. I can’t pay my bills,” said Walker, who added that she does not get enough hours at work. “In New York, we are leaders, and we must set the example on this as well,” said Walker.

Before the meeting, activists gathered at a nearby church to say an interfaith prayer for the success of their petition to have fast-food restaurants raise their minimum wage to $15 per hour. “Brothers and sisters, let’s stop the subsidies that this billion-dollar industry is getting. We want $15 and a union. Yes we can!” said 32BJ SEIU President Héctor Figueroa. “After this, we will continue to fight for $15 for all workers.”

After the prayer, over 200 people walked to NYU’s Kimmel Center, where the wage board listened to the testimonies. The stories of many Latinos stood out. José Juarez, a Domino’s Pizza delivery man, said that his wage is so low he is forced to share a bathroom with nine people in the apartment where he lives. Still, he said, that is not the hardest part. “I can barely see my son because I have two jobs. I leave at 7:30 a.m. and, sometimes, I return at 1:30 a.m. the next day,” said Juárez. “I am not saving at all right now in spite of having enough work for two people.”

Among the speakers was multimillionaire investor Nick Hanauer, who flew in especially from Seattle, the first city in the nation to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The entrepreneur refuted the argument that raising the minimum wage will create a spike in unemployment.

“They present this as if it was a law of physics, and that is not correct,” said Hanauer. He added that the economy has improved in Seattle and that there are more restaurants per capita in that city than in New York. “The fundamental law of capitalism is that if people earn more, they will consume more.”

Yet, not all entrepreneurs spoke in favor of the measure. “Going to a restaurant is one of life’s simple pleasures in the U.S. This simple pleasure will now cost more,” said Howard Nielsen, owner of the Sticky Lips BBQ restaurant in Rochester.

Aside from these verbal testimonies, written ones were read on behalf of people such as Mayor Bill de Blasio. “For me, and for millions of others, there really shouldn’t be a debate on this issue. The people are demanding higher wages. They are not requesting it, or begging for it. They are demanding it,” stated de Blasio. “And since we live in a democracy, I think it’s best for all of us in positions of leadership – including those on the wage board – to heed their call.”

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