A bill to increase the minimum wage incrementally over the next year and a half passed the Democrat-controlled state Assembly earlier this month.
Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) held an open-air news conference with state Sen. John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights) last week to announce the legislation and push the Senate majority to do the same in the next 30 days.
Flanked by more than a dozen immigrant day laborers in front of the New York Cho Dae Church at 71-17 Roosevelt Ave. in Jackson Heights, Peralta said "people came here to live the American Dream and they're living the American nightmare."
Sabini, who said some Senate Republicans have expressed support for raising the minimum wage, said Senate Democrats will force a floor vote on the minimum wage bill if the Republican majority does not move on it before the end of budget-writing period in April.
In New York City, more than 700,000 people are living on less than $260 a week, Peralta said, which means it is hard to make ends meet. And raising a family on minimum wage is nearly impossible, he added. "You can forget about extracurricular activities," Peralta said.
At $5.15 an hour, full-time workers earn $10,712 a year, before taxes, which falls below the federal poverty level for a single-child family. The Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank, estimated that modestly meeting the needs of a single-parent, single-child family would require a salary of $36,899 a year.
The City Council estimated that there are 290,000 people in New York City who earn the minimum wage, spokeswoman Lupe Todd said. The last minimum wage increase was in 1997, when the federal minimum wage was raised to $5.15 an hour.
Peralta and Sabini dismissed criticism that a wage hike of $1.95 would threaten small businesses, which have been responsible for the lion's share of the region's tepid economic recovery.
"It's not really going to affect small business owners," Peralta said. "We're not making the change all at one time," referring to the structured wage increase that would be carried out over time. The bill calls for an increase to $6 by October, to $6.75 by July 1, 2005, and to $7.10 after Jan. 1, 2006. The incremental increase, he said, is one of the fundamental differences between this bill and two others that passed the Assembly in 2001 and 2002 but died in the Senate.
"No one denies that small businesses are the backbone and lifeblood of New York City, but the people are, too," Todd said. Council members Helen Foster (D-Manhattan) and Philip Reed (D-Manhattan) introduced last week a resolution to support a minimum wage increase.
An increase in the minimum wage, Todd said, might also bring an increase in disposable income, which, in turn, could be plowed back into the economy.
The City Council does not have the authority to alter the minimum wage, but can encourage the state Legislature to do so.
"If our neighboring states can do this, there's no reason we can't do this," Sabini said.
"Rents went up, trains went up, food is going up, but salaries are going down," Javier Gallardo said in Spanish. The organizer for the Latin American Workers' Project, which represents the interests of more than 1,000 day laborers along and around Roosevelt Avenue and 75th Street, said "we're living in a situation of danger and insecurity."
The Latin American Workers' Project and the Colombian Civic Center, which also sent a representative to the news conference, support the bill, but some day laborers said there is no guarantee they will see any more money.
"There's no protection," Juan Benitez said in Spanish. The 46-year-old day laborer from Ecuador, who has been here for two years, said that earlier in the week he was promised $120 for a day's work at a construction site in Brooklyn but only received $80. "I didn't even get a glass of water [while on site]," he said.
Other day laborers who observed the press conference said that if they do not accept a job for which they think the pay is too low, somebody else will, regardless of the minimum wage.
Carlos Robledo, a 25-year-old day laborer from Colombia, spoke at the news conference in support of the bill. "We're not making enough to eat. We're not making enough to have a place to sleep today," the self-taught English speaker said with a slight accent.
Sabini said the bill is more likely to see passage now in an election year as politicians seek to attract swing voters.
"Please. Now is the time," Peralta said, asking for approval for the bill from Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Rensselaer) and Pataki.
"They want you to work like horses, and they don't want to pay you enough," Robledo said.
Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@times
©2004 Community News Group
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