TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—As negotiations continue over the New York State budget after missing its initial April 1 deadline, business owners, workers, and labor advocates in Tompkins County are all waiting to see what becomes of the state’s minimum wage.
Adjacent to the legislative fights that have dominated budget negotiations between the state legislature and the Governor’s Office — over issues like bail reform and housing — the argument in Albany over changing the state minimum wage and tying it to inflation has been brought to the fore locally by the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, a worker’s rights advocacy group.
The Workers’ Center has been teaming with a network of state advocates campaigning for year to year increases of the minimum wage until, in 2026, it reaches $21.25 an hour downstate and $20 an hour upstate. At that point, increases in the minimum wage would be tied to inflation.
That plan for changing the minimum wage is supported in the state legislature’s version of the state budget, but in Governor Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal, she offered tying the minimum wage to inflation without any scheduled increases. Additionally, Hochul’s proposal would allow the state governor to cap annual increases of the minimum wage at 3%.
The Workers’ Center managed to rally together a win in a razor-thin vote in the Tompkins County Legislature, which passed a resolution a few weeks ago urging Hochul to support the state legislature’s version of the Raise the Wage Act.
Tompkins County Workers’ Center Coordinator Pete Meyers, and other advocates, argue that the state minimum wage should be high enough so that someone who is working full time at that wage can afford all their living expenses.
Currently, the minimum wage is $15 an hour downstate, and $14.20 in upstate New York. Those wages were the final increases in a wage rate schedule passed in the 2016-2017 state budget under former governor Andrew Cuomo, marking a major increase from the state’s 2016 minimum wage of $9 an hour.
But the minimum wage doesn’t compare to the cost of living in many places throughout the state, argues Meyers. “Nobody wants to live on poverty wages,” said Meyers. “I mean, $14.20 is, frankly, a poverty wage in Steuben County […] maybe even more of a poverty wage in Tompkins [County], but it’s still a poverty wage.”
The Workers’ Center collaborates on promoting a living wage in Tompkins County, which is calculated by Alternatives Federal Credit Union. The living wage, which is currently calculated at $16.61 in Tompkins County, is meant to be what someone working full time needs to make in order to meet the average cost of housing, transportation, food, and other costs of living in the county, while saving a little money.
But calls for caution have come out of the business community, particularly from small businesses and organizations.
Jennifer Tavares, CEO of the Tompkins Chamber, said that the chamber isn’t taking a stance on either of the minimum wage proposals in the state legislature, but explained that the minimum wage increasing to $20 an hour by 2026 would be “a really massive adjustment in a very short period of time, and it has other impacts elsewhere in [businesses’] cost scenarios.”
Tavares shared with The Ithaca Voice the results of a survey that the chamber of commerce distributed to its members, which include businesses and organizations from mostly inside Tompkins County. Out of 96 respondents, Tavares said that 55% of them support the Governor’s minimum wage proposal, and 29% support the legislature’s version.
Tavares said that 10 businesses reported to her that they would be at risk of closing if the legislature’s wage increases were passed, and 25 businesses and organizations reported that they would need to cut jobs back.
For a business owner trying to handle those wage increases, Tavares said, “you have to cut expenses elsewhere, you have to cut jobs, you’d have to cut costs. Or you need to drastically actually increase your revenue.”
Heather Mount, executive director at the Coddington Road Community Center, a nonprofit that operates a childcare program, said that she isn’t opposed to wage increases — she oversaw the center becoming a certified by the Tompkins County Workers Center as a Living Wage Employer a couple years ago — but wanted to express that she wouldn’t have a choice but to raise the cost of providing childcare.
Childcare centers, which often operate on thin margins and fragile budgets, are also expensive for families to enroll their children in. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average cost of child care for a 4-year old comes in at $1,030 a month in New York State.
Getting the living wage certification, Mount said, meant bringing revenue up “at minimum by 4%, which will 100% get passed on to families who pay tuition to bring their kids to our childcare center. And so, basically, I’m taking money from one wallet, to provide it to another wallet.”
That’s the pattern that would continue for the center as the living wage, or minimum wage increases.
While limiting the minimum wage may help struggling businesses and organizations keep down their payroll expenses, Joe Wetmore, the former owner of Autumn Leaves Used Books, said he supported further increasing the minimum wage and tying it to inflation. He criticized Hochul’s proposal to give the governor’s office the power to cap the increases to the minimum wage that would come as a result of inflation.
“[Hochul] wants to have the ability to put a cap on minimum wage increases. But she’s not saying she’ll put a cap on expenses for people in the lower end of the economy. So the idea is, people who are poor, you can limit how much they make. But you don’t limit how much rents are, or how much food is in terms of costs.”
“Who’s that going to squeeze? I think that’s pretty obvious,” said Wetmore.