Fast Food Workers in New York are Getting a Raise!

Hard work by our affiliate Citizen Action of New York – along with dozens of other allied organizations and unions, and thousands of workers who took to the streets and shared their personal stories – has paid off  in a huge victory.

Yesterday, the New York State Wage Board approved gradually raising the minimum wage for New York City fast food chain employees to $15 an hour by 2018. Fast food worker wages throughout New York state will gradually raise to $15 an hour by 2021.

“This is a huge victory for fast food workers, and for everyone working for low wages in New York,” said LeeAnn Hall, executive director of the Alliance for a Just Society.  “It puts pressure on employers in other low-paying industries to start paying their workers a living wage.

“I applaud the hard work of everyone who fought for this important moment,” said Hall.

Fast food workers are paid less than any other occupation, and fast food work is projected to be the second largest growing occupation in the country, with more openings than nearly any other.

This momentous victory brings fast food workers in New York significantly closer to earning a wage that will allow them to support themselves. It will boost their own financial stability, their communities, and the economy for all of us.

In New York and many other states, $15 is still a modest wage. This increase however allows workers to come closer to making ends meet.

In the report “Families Out of Balance” by the Alliance for a Just Society, our research shows that a living wage for a single adult is $18.47 an hour in New York state and is $22.49 an hour in New York City.

A pay raise is long overdue for all our workers nationwide. Tomorrow marks six years since the federal government last raised the minimum wage – to $7.25 on July 24, 2009.

A bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate Wednesday by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and in the House by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

If the wage can be raised in Seattle and New York and Los Angeles and so many other cities, it can be raised nationally – and we can do it.

Congratulations New York!


States Must Do More to Support Workers and Families

“Get a Better Job!” “Get an Education!” “Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps!”

Too often when workers struggle to make ends meet, these are the messages they hear. Unfortunately, these messages set unrealistic expectations.

Rather than creating an environment that helps ensure working families can succeed, too many states set up systems that that work against workers and their families. Over the past month and a half, the Alliance for a Just Society has released “Rigged to Fail” state report cards in nine states (Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Montana, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington) that show just how difficult it is to get by when policies work against you.

Previous reports in the Job Gap Economic Prosperity Series focused primarily on specific wage levels needed to make ends meet. In contrast, the “Rigged to Fail” report cards focus on the premise that there are a variety of reasons that working families are unable to thrive – beyond low wages. Some of those reasons include tax systems that let those with high incomes off the hook, unchecked predatory lending, state investments that do not ensure high wages, and state disinvestment in higher education.

While moving the minimum wage closer to a living wage is a vital piece of ensuring that workers can support themselves and their families, it is not a magic bullet that will leave all families prospering. Instead, an array of state policies determine the playing field for workers, and whether all workers have an equal shot at being able to thrive.

The “Rigged to Fail” reports look at 25 indicators and whether states’ policies support working families or hinder their chance of success. Of the nine states studied, eight received a failing grade and the remaining state, Washington, received a D-. Simply put, these states are failing workers.

Even states that scored relatively well in some areas scored poorly in others, focusing on one aspect of workers’ lives while seemingly ignoring the fact that workers depend not only on wages, or worker supports, or on a fair and progressive tax structure, but all three areas.

New York, for example, received a relatively high score for its tax structure and received a C+ in supports for working families, but its low minimum wage compared to the cost of living, tipped subminimum wage (which was recently increased, but is still below the minimum wage for non-tipped workers), and poor outcomes for women and people of color left it with a failing grade.

Similarly, while the state of Washington received a B+ for its supports for working families, the state’s claim as the “most unfair state and local tax system in the country” and a low score on jobs and wages left it squeaking by with a final grade of D-; a grade which no one would point to as success.

And yet, there is hope. Most of the 25 indicators included in the reports had at least one state scoring high marks, showing that it is possible to receive a high grade and truly support workers and their families, and coalitions have pushed for and seen progress on indicators like the tipped subminimum wage in New York and in expanding Medicaid in Montana just before that state’s report release.

But, states cannot focus on only one area of workers’ lives while ignoring the impact of other policies on families’ ability to make ends meet. Progress in a single area, like increasing wages, will not move a state’s grade from failure to success.

Only by taking a holistic approach and recognizing that working families need jobs with higher wages and good benefits, protections from predatory lending, and a fair and progressive tax structure that funds a broad range of worker and family supports, can states ensure that workers have a fair chance at success.


Working Families Need Good Jobs – Not Just Any Job

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its January jobs report, showing that 257,000 jobs were added last month. Increasing jobs is great news, but only if those jobs allow workers and their families to make ends meet.

The numbers have been praised, especially the average hourly wages that “soared 12 cents” to $24.75. While wages did increase in January, that “soaring” was compared to a decrease in wages in December, and was only 7 cents higher than wages reported in November. Additionally, 20 states increased their minimum wage in January, which would on its own increase average hourly wages.

In the latest installment of the Job Gap Economic Prosperity Series, “Low Wage Nation,” we show that most of the country’s job growth is in low wage jobs paying less than $15 per hour. Occupations like retail sales and food service top the list of jobs with the most new openings, yet these occupations have some of the lowest wages in the country.

Such jobs do not pay enough for a single adult to make ends meet, let alone a parent with children. Additionally, women and people of color are also overrepresented in these low-wage occupations, leaving them less likely to earn enough to provide for themselves and their families.

Nearly half of all new job openings are low wage, and nationally there are seven job seekers for every job opening that pays at least $15 per hour. That means that six of those seven job seekers must either take a lower-paying job, or go without work, as there aren’t enough jobs of any wage level for all of the nation’s job seekers.

“There are still too many people out of work, and too few living wage jobs to go around. We need to invest in good paying jobs and celebrate once our workers are able to make ends meet,” said LeeAnn Hall, executive director of the Alliance.

Increasing the minimum wage does help increase workers’ wages across the board – we saw some of that in January’s job growth, and we can see more if more cities and states increase their minimum wage.

However, we also need to increase the number of jobs available that actually pay a living wage by investing in good paying jobs, like those in the health care industry. Once our workers are able to make ends meet, it will truly be cause for celebration.

Making Ends Meet: Unaffordable Housing

Last month, we showed just how difficult it is for working parents to afford to pay for child care and cover other living expenses. One of those other major living expenses that all workers must account for is the cost of housing and utilities.

Housing is considered affordable if it costs no more than 30 percent of a family’s income. For workers earning minimum wage, though, finding housing at 30 percent or less of their income can be impossible.

The cost of housing and utilities (including basic home phone service) for a one-bedroom apartment takes more than 50 percent of a full-time worker’s income at minimum wage in 6 of the 10 states studied in the Alliance’s 2014-2015 Job Gap Economic Prosperity Series. Housing and utilities take more than 40 percent of their income in the other 4 states. In New York City, those expenses can easily top 100 percent of a single minimum wage earner’s income.

For a working parent who needs a two-bedroom apartment, the cost of rent and utilities is more than two-thirds of a single minimum wage earner’s income in 6 of the 10 states studied, and is more than half of that earner’s income in the remaining 4 states.

In the 10 states studied, annualized fair market rents (which include utilities) plus basic phone service for a one-bedroom apartment range from $6,672 in Montana to $15,192 in New York City. Annual costs for a two-bedroom apartment range from $8,504 in Montana to $17,964 in New York City. Additionally, because fair market rent is based at the 40th percentile, 60 percent of units actually cost more than that amount.

As the National Low-Income Housing Coalition notes, “A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.” That is, there is no place in the United States where the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment costs less than 30 percent of minimum wage earnings.

In fact, in 2012 there were only 16 available affordable units per 100 deeply low-income households who earn 15 percent or less of area median income. For these households, which include minimum wage earners, finding housing that is affordable is nearly impossible.

When rent is unaffordable, workers have few choices. Some families squeeze multiple people into a studio apartment or share a larger apartment with another family; some forego other necessities like health care or nutritious meals; and some must rely on affordable housing or other supports, if they can get in.

In our recent report, Equity in the Balance, Gaisha Velazquez, a working mom in Connecticut describes her struggle to find housing for herself and her young daughter on a low income.

“Our rent takes up almost half of our income, and we live in a pretty violent neighborhood with lower rent than some other areas,” said Velazquez. ” But it’s the best we can do right now.”

Like childcare, the high cost of housing can be an insurmountable obstacle to making ends meet for low-wage workers. Increasing wages through a higher minimum wage and investing in higher-wage industries will help more workers afford the cost of housing. Additionally, though, addressing the lack of affordable housing and overall high housing costs will help all workers be better able to make ends meet.

Over the next few months, the Alliance for a Just Society will look at some of the components that go into calculating a living wage, and show why it’s impossible to make ends meet working full-time at minimum wage.

Unaffordable Housing graph

Report: America’s Families Are Out of Balance

Media Advisory
Alliance for a Just Society
September 29, 2014
Contact: Kathy Mulady
(206) 992-8787

America’s Families Are Out of Balance

“The basic bargain of America is that no matter who you are, where you come from or what you look like, if you work hard & play by the rules, you can make it.”  – U.S. Department of LaborSecretary Tom Perez on the agency’s Labor Day 2014.

Millions of families in America work hard, play by the rules and are not making it.  The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and hasn’t been increased in five years.

A sobering report, Families Out of Balance, released this week by the Alliance for a Just Society, shows that the living wage for a single worker in Idaho or Montana is $14.40 an hour. In New York City, it’s $22.50 an hour.

For families it’s even more:

TeeJay Henry ­– A young man in Idaho is trying to support his wife and baby daughter on $12 an hour he earns working fulltime as a heavy truck tire technician. He’s had two raises in two years. They share a house with roommates.  A family living wage in Idaho: about $25 an hour.

Carlota Ortega – She and her husband have two children and live in New York City. She earns $8.50 an hour at a bakery; he earns $10 an hour in construction. They don’t have enough to eat. Living wage in New York City for this family with two working parents: $25.14 per hour for each parent.

Nazmie Batista – A young couple in Connecticut with two children count their pennies. Her husband works full time, but to save childcare costs, she works part-time. They cut back on groceries. She doesn’t know how she will cover her student loan payment. Living wage in Connecticut for a family with two children: $24.92 an hour for each parent.

Calculations in the Families Out of Balance report are no-frills, with a small cushion of savings to cover the minor emergencies that can sink low-income families. Our budgets don’t include payments on student loan debt or medical debt that burdens many low–income families.

What our report does show is that 9 out of 10 low-income families prioritize paying their bills, even if it means skipping meals or turning off the heat in the winter.

Now it’s time for Congress and our state legislators to prioritize families. It’s time for businesses to pay real living wages, so working families can thrive – not just barely survive. Here are some recommendations to get started.

Please let me know if you would like to interview families included in the report, or the authors of the report, Ben Henry and Allyson Fredericksen.

You can find the full report at

Job Gap: Working Families Struggling, Sliding Deeper into Debt

JobGapNYSMeme2Debt – it’s become so entrenched in our daily lives that it’s almost a given. Debt is often a choice for higher income families, as an investment in the form of a mortgage or as a means to help pay for college.

However, lower-income households often end up in debt because their incomes leave them living paycheck-to-paycheck without a cushion for even minor incidentals. When an someone gets sick, the doctor bills pile up. If they attend college to improve their job opportunities, the student loan debt piles up.

It is an impossible balance sheet, resulting in families cutting back on necessities like health care, meals, or heat in the winter as they try to scrape by.

Today, Alliance for a Just Society released Families Out of Balance, the first report in the 2014 Job Gap Economic Prosperity Series. The report shows exactly how dramatically lower-income workers are disproportionately burdened by debt.

In addition, the reports shows that minimum wages in 10 states studied across the country fall far short of a living wage – even without adding debt to the equation. Continue reading “Job Gap: Working Families Struggling, Sliding Deeper into Debt”

Fair Wages Aren’t Enough, Workers Need Hours, Predictability, too

Fast-Food-EmployeesThere’s no question that working families across the country are struggling to get by; wages for most income levels have been stagnant or declining over the past decade, while the cost of living has continued to increase.

One key to helping working families is increasing wages so that there are more living wage jobs available. However, increasing the minimum wage is only part of the solution for helping families whose low-wage jobs do not always include steady work.

Living wage calculations, like those produced by the Alliance for a Just Society, must make assumptions to remain consistent year after year. One of those assumptions is that workers have jobs where they can actually work 40 hours per week, year-round (for 2,080 hours per year). For many workers, this assumption doesn’t match their reality.

For retail and restaurant workers, a steady schedule with enough hours can be hard to come by. Retail salespersons and food preparation and service workers are two of the top five occupations with the greatest projected job growth between 2012 and 2022, but are also low-wage occupations, with 2013 median annual wage of $21,140 and $18,330, respectively. These jobs are also often shift work, without set schedules. Continue reading “Fair Wages Aren’t Enough, Workers Need Hours, Predictability, too”

Everyone Benefits When Workers Earn Living Wages

The South Korea government is taking an interesting approach to stagnating wages. The South Korean Ministry of Strategy and Finance is pushing a policy to offer tax credits to those firms that increase worker pay.

This legislation — which, if approved by the South Korean parliament, would go into effect in January — creates a policy incentive for firms to increase wages. As in America, wage growth in South Korea is “not keeping pace with corporate profits in South Korea, where household debt is rising while companies hoard cash,” according to this Bloomberg story.

Entrenched Lobbyists Stirring Raise-the-Wage Opposition

Spring is in the air. That means cherry blossom season in Washington. It also means fly-in time, when the nation’s biggest trade associations hold their annual lobby days. Case in point: the National Restaurant Association (NRA) is hitting town at the end of April.

Topping the Restaurant Association’s agenda? Stick a fork in the proposed minimum wage increase. The NRA has an impressive track record on this issue: Congress hasn’t voted to increase the minimum wage since 2007, and the tipped minimum wage that applies to many restaurant workers remains frozen at $2.13 an hour… where it’s been stuck since 1991.

Whose interests does the NRA represent? Its membership includes a kitchen sink list of corporate chains, including Darden Restaurants (parent company of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and Capital Grille), YUM! Brands (parent of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut), Walt Disney, McDonald’s, Marriott, Sodexo, Aramark, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola – all members of the Fortune 500 orGlobal 500.

But on its lobby day, the Restaurant Association will likely showcase “mom and pop” restaurants instead of corporate chains. If you’re going to lobby against a publicly popular issue like a minimum wage increase, it’s better optics to say you’re speaking for the corner bakery than corporate chains like Taco Bell and Olive Garden.

So, on its fly-in day, the NRA will cultivate a Main Street image. But the other 364 days of the NRA’s year feature a different main ingredient: Washington insider influence-peddling that stacks the deck against low-wage workers.

The Restaurant Association’s roster of registered lobbyists has grown substantially, even as more lobbying moves underground in Washington. From 2008 to 2013, the NRA more than doubled its count of registered lobbyists from 15 to 37, according to The member companies listed above added another 127 registered lobbyists last year.

The NRA’s choice of lobbyists reflects a commitment to using the best ingredients, netting four mentions on The Hill’s Top Lobbyists list for 2013. Or, you might say, the best-connected ingredients. The “secret sauce” behind the NRA’s lobbying success? A heaping helping of revolving door influence.

Nothing symbolizes influence-peddling in Washington like the revolving door between Congress and K Street – it’s like Washington’s version of insider trading. Despite reforms passed in 2007, the revolving door spins faster than ever: according to the Sunlight Foundation, the share of active contract lobbyists who are revolvers increased from 18 percent in 1998 to 44 percent in 2012.

And, when it comes to using the revolving door to cook up insider influence, nobody does it like the National Restaurant Association.

Indeed, when the NRA doubled its lobbyist count, it didn’t just pluck any old suits off the D.C. streets. It made a concerted investment: all the growth came from a four-fold increase in “insider trading” (ie, revolving door) lobbyists, from 6 in 2008 to 27 in 2013.

The NRA’s 2013 insiders included nine “rapid revolvers” (who jumped from government jobs to lobbying jobs the same or the following year), six former congressional chiefs of staff, six former legislative directors, and various senior advisors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

For perspective, compare the Restaurant Association’s revolver profile to that of the other NRA powerhouse in Washington – the National Rifle Association. While the two had virtually identical lobbyist counts last year (37 for restaurants33 for rifles), the Restaurant Association had nearly twice as many revolvers as the gun lobby (27 to 15).

The Restaurant Association’s members have invested heavily in insiders, too: the companies listed above tripled their combined revolver count from 28 to 91 over 1998-2013 (their non-revolvers only increased from 28 to 36). Talk about super-sizing your insider influence.

So the Restaurant Association and its biggest members together have more than a hundred “insider trading” lobbyists pushing their agenda in Congress. How many do minimum wage workers have, again?

If it seems surprisingly hard to raise the minimum wage, despite overwhelming public support, we’ll know why. The restaurant industry’s legions of revolving door lobbyists are trading on their insider influence to keep any wage increase right where the NRA wants it: in the deep freezer.

LeeAnn Hall is the executive director of the Alliance for a Just Society, a national organizing and policy network that works with state-based organizations to build campaigns for economic and racial equity. Saru Jayaraman is the Director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, the author of national best-seller Behind the Kitchen Door, and co-founder & co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United).

This opinion piece first appeared in The Hill.

Read more: 

Living Wage: A New Battle in the War on Poverty

Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson announced a War on Poverty in America, more than 46.5 million people in our country, national-report-cover-artabout one out of every seven, still struggle to get enough to eat or have a place to live. The U.S. Census Bureau shows that for people of color, the poverty rate is even higher, with one out of every four people who are black or Latino living in poverty.

Programs like Medicare and Medicaid that were created to fight the War on Poverty have helped millions of people. Strengthening both of those programs continues to be a critical part of protecting families. But the battle plan for keeping families safe and secure also has to include another key element: a significantly higher minimum wage – an actual living wage. Continue reading “Living Wage: A New Battle in the War on Poverty”