"It ties your stomach in knots." That is how Joyce Carroll, a Staten Island home health aide, describes the feeling of constantly having to delay aggressive bill collectors on the phone, despite working full time. "The $15 minimum wage will transform my life, pure and simple."
Joyce cares for seniors with Alzheimer's in their homes, lifting them out of bed, bathing, dressing and feeding them and making sure they take their medicine. For her vital and difficult work, Joyce has been earning just $10 an hour.
"Right now, I feel like I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul," she says. "Each month, bills come in and I don't have the money to pay them all. The work we do as caregivers is serious; it takes a lot out of you physically, mentally and emotionally. Then on top of that, you have to figure out where your next meal is coming from."
Katie Zawatski shares the same experience. She is a certified nurse assistant at a Buffalo nursing home who makes $10.74 an hour.
"I deeply love caring for my elderly residents, but my low wage just isn't cutting it now that I'm raising my baby daughter," says Katie. "We sometimes have to hold back on buying even the most basic necessities."
While working people like Joyce and Katie have been struggling, Wall Street bonuses alone topped $25 billion last year. These bonuses are greater than the combined earnings of all minimum wage workers in the entire United States.
This shocking inequality is why Governor Cuomo, community organizations, unions, faith leaders and other elected officials helped to lead the successful campaign for a $15 minimum wage in New York. Under this historic agreement, New York City's minimum wage will rise to $15 by the end of 2018, with Long Island and Westchester reaching $15 by the end of 2021. In a compromise measure, the minimum wage in Upstate will hit $12.50 by the end of 2020, and then the government will determine the subsequent yearly increases until it reaches $15.
The passage of the law is all the more astounding because $15 seemed impossible just a couple years ago, and there were powerful forces demanding no increase in the minimum wage at all. With this victory, hundreds of thousands of homecare workers, nurse assistants, childcare workers, security guards, airport workers and others will receive their first raises this December. In total, almost three million working New Yorkers making less than $15 will be lifted up.
"I will be able to restore my good credit, pay my bills and have peace of mind. Most of all, I will feel like my hard work caring for seniors is valued and respected," says Joyce, the homecare worker.
Places across the country that have started to implement the $15 minimum wage, like Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have seen their economies grow. Experts expect the same for New York, and that is why 200 economists, along with over 85 businesses, supported raising the minimum wage. When working people have more money in their pockets, they spend more on local goods and services, driving the economy overall. And raising the floor will put upward pressure on employers to increase pay across the board in order to attract workers.
But the $15 minimum wage is about much more than dollars and cents. It is about what kind of state, and what kind of nation, we want to be. Should the working women and men who make our airports run, keep us safe and care for our children, parents, and grandparents be condemned to a life of poverty?
When Governor Cuomo was holding rallies across our state to build support for raising the minimum wage, he would often declare that "We are all connected to each other." Dignity and security can no longer be the reserve of the wealthy few. New York must be a place where all working people can thrive and build a better future for their families.
As New York goes, so goes the nation. California is raising their minimum to $15 by 2022, and many other cities and states are sure to follow. With the passage of the $15 minimum wage, we have proudly rebuked the right-wing ethos that only values extreme wealth, and we are leading our entire nation toward a more just future where hard work is rewarded with fair pay.
George Gresham is President of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and Chair of the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice, which helped lead the successful effort to pass the $15 New York State minimum wage.