By Eric T. Schneiderman
On Tuesday, my office announced the latest in a string of enforcement actions against unscrupulous employers who cheat their employees out of wages, tips and overtime. Since I took office in January 2011, we’ve recovered more than $20 million for 17,000 workers.
Morally bankrupt wage practices and laws cannot hold. Enforcement actions by my office and others are having an impact, and pressure is building: Wednesday, fast-food workers across the country protested against unconscionably low minimum wages that leave even fully paid employees below the poverty line, unable to support themselves and their families.
We must use every tool at our disposal to lift the living standards of low-wage employees. Here in the Empire State — birthplace of historic labor reforms enacted by Gov. Al Smith in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — a 55-year-old provision of our Labor Law creates the opportunity to overcome gridlock and provide a more livable wage for our most hard-pressed workers.
While the statewide minimum wage is set by the Legislature and the governor, state law endows the state’s commissioner of labor with the authority to investigate and increase the minimum wage for any occupation if the commissioner determines that a substantial number of employees “are receiving wages insufficient to provide adequate maintenance and to protect their health.”
The law spells out in detail how the commissioner must proceed, beginning with convening a “Wage Board” to investigate and make recommendations about wage levels.
This process has been used twice in recent years, in limited ways, to raise wages for certain categories of workers. It is clearly lawful for our commissioner of labor to increase wage minimums, provided the statute’s guidelines and procedures are followed. New York courts have consistently held this process to be constitutional.
With President Obama’s proposal to increase the federal minimum wage dead on arrival, attention is turning to state and local laws. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia now have minimum wages that exceed federal wage law requirements; Seattle made history by enacting a plan to raise its minimum to $15.
But progress in New York has stalled: The governor’s proposal to include a modest minimum wage increase in the state budget was not enacted, and Mayor de Blasio’s laudable call for a more substantial minimum-wage hike in the city was embraced only by the state Assembly.
The state’s minimum wage remains a paltry $8.75 an hour, on track to go up to $9 at year’s end.
As a practical matter, faced with the real prospect of action by the commissioner of labor, legislators would be much more likely to pass an increase that could otherwise be held up for years. Lawmakers zealously guard their prerogatives and, as much as some might oppose a minimum-wage increase, they will not want to see the issue taken out of their hands.
Low-wage workers have power themselves to get the ball rolling. In a strikingly populist provision of the law, a petition by 50 employees in any occupation forces the commissioner of labor to conduct an investigation into the adequacy of their wages. The investigative process itself could shine a massive spotlight on the struggles of low-wage workers. And any fair examination of their conditions would almost certainly demand relief.
Just over 50 years ago, when Lyndon Johnson outlined his priorities as President, he spoke of his personal experiences with poverty and his longstanding desire to help those who suffered under its burdens. “Now I do have that chance,” he said, “and I’ll let you in on a secret: I mean to use it.”
The secret’s out: New York’s Labor Law provides the power to help low-wage workers earn enough to meet their basic needs. It may be time to use it.
Schneiderman is New York’s attorney general.