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N.Y.ers deserve a real raise: The state minimum wage wage should be increased to $21.25 and then indexed to keep up with inflation

A gallon of milk starts at $5 in a local supermarket here in Queens. And a dozen eggs cost between $6 and $10. These prices were unheard of just five years ago. But today, we’re living through the gravest cost-of-living crisis in 40 years, and working class New Yorkers are impacted the most. Yet somehow, corporations are making record profits. While CEOs and executives rake in historic salaries, working New Yorkers deserve a raise. And the small and local businesses who make up the foundation of our communities need support too. The solution is clear: raise the minimum wage to at least $21.25.

A broad coalition of impacted workers, unions, advocates and lawmakers including myself, are fighting for the Raise the Wage Act — legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $21.25 by 2026 in New York City before “indexing” it to automatically rise with the cost of living. Both the Senate and Assembly committed to this fight with budget proposals that raise the minimum wage before indexing wages to inflation. This is the best way to ensure New Yorkers can earn a living wage to support their basic needs and the needs of their families.

$21.25 isn’t just a random number — it equals what the minimum wage would be if $15 had been indexed in 2018, taking into account the financial hardship low wage workers have been experiencing over the past few years. That same $15 from 2018 is worth just $12.75 in today’s dollars.

A $21.25 indexed minimum wage would benefit a staggering 2.9 million workers across the state with an average annual raise of $3,300, or $63 a week. Compare that to Gov. Hochul’s proposal to index New York’s minimum wage starting at the existing $15: 900,000 New Yorkers would get only an additional $13 weekly; that barely buys you a sandwich. Workers making low wages, just a few dollars above $15, wouldn’t be included either. In contrast, the Raise the Wage Act represents real money that could make all the difference for families trying to make ends meet; money they could then spend at local businesses which desperately need it too.

We were in a similar fight 10 years ago when I served as city comptroller and issued a report, “Working but Still Struggling: The Case for a New York City Minimum Wage.” Back then, the city’s minimum wage was a paltry $7.50 an hour, well below the cost of living, and we recommended both raising it to $11.50 per hour, and indexing it to inflation.

Here we are 10 years later, and we’re still fighting a scaled up version of the same fight. Workers of color led and won the fight for a $15 minimum wage. As a result, one in three workers received pay raises by more than $4,000 annually without causing any job loss. A $15 minimum wage led to historic reductions in poverty and earnings inequality in New York, as well as job growth. In fact from 2013 to 2019, employment in New York City grew by more than 18%, compared to 14% in cities that did not increase the minimum wage.

In a borough as diverse and vibrant as Queens, the positive impacts of a fair minimum wage reach all of us. Raising the minimum wage to $15 not only resulted in higher earnings for workers, it helped businesses keep their employees — saving them recruitment and retention costs, and boosted sales at local businesses.

The governor’s proposal to index is a great start, and it would make New York the 19th state in the nation to tie the minimum wage to rising costs, but workers need a raise first. The historic gains of the Fight for $15 have plateaued as the cost of living has skyrocketed, and the minimum wage has remained frozen in New York City. Refusing to raise the minimum wage before indexing is essentially codifying a sub-living wage, and it puts us right back in the same boat we were in 10 years ago.

New Yorkers can literally no longer afford to simply play catch up; we need to keep up with the costs of living that continue to rise year after year. Let’s stand with the coalition of workers, labor, community organizers, and businesses who are fighting to restore the minimum wage — a plan overwhelmingly popular across political parties. Collectively, we can ensure every New Yorker has the means to live a safe and dignified life. A $21.25 minimum wage is what they need, and what they deserve.

Liu represents Flushing, Bayside and Fresh Meadows and other Queens neighborhoods in the state Senate.

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