Mayoral candidates divided on setting higher local minimum wage

India Morales works 40 hours a week on the night shift at a branch of Duane Reade on the Upper West Side, but now she’s looking for a day job. She says she needs a little more cash to support her daughter, Aliyah, who is 10.

Morales, 28, talks over the noise of the TV she watches to try to get to sleep. She says she manages four hours of sleep a night, if she’s lucky.

“Right now, money-wise, I feel like I should be managing better. Because the day job is enough, but it’s not enough.”

A fast food workers' strike raised public awareness of those who live in New York on the minimum wage. Photo: Ruth Michaelson

A fast food workers’ strike raised public awareness of those who live in New York on the minimum wage. Photo: Ruth Michaelson

Morales makes $8.55 an hour, or $1.30 above the current minimum wage of $7.25.

“I just feel like I’m not putting money away,” she says. “There’s always something. Once you break $100, that’s it.”

The New York State Legislature voted in March to increase the minimum wage for non-tipped workers on a sliding scale. Beginning Dec. 31, the minimum wage will go up to $8. One year later, it will rise to $8.75, and again to $9 an hour at the end of 2015.

Every penny counts, but the math still doesn’t add up for Morales and many other full-time workers in New York City.

The Economic Policy Institute, a labor-funded Washington think tank, created a measure for a decent standard of living. Calculated for one parent and one child living in New York City, it adds up to almost five times what someone earning the minimum wage now makes.

At $9 an hour, a person working 40 hours a week will earn $1,440 each month, or $17,280 a year.

The election of a new mayor could alter the equation. Frontrunner Bill de Blasio has centered his campaign on a “tale of two cities” message, vowing to take action to reduce yawning income inequality. Other cities, including San Francisco, Boston and Albuquerque, have established their own local minimum wages, overriding state and federal regulations.

De Blasio has hinted that New York City could be next. During the primary campaign, he spent a week attempting to live on the budget of a minimum-wage worker, and his jobs plan calls for Albany to “give New York City the ability to set the minimum wage rate at a level appropriate to the city’s high cost of living and worker productivity, rather than having the same rate as that of lower-cost upstate counties.”

The Democratic nominee has also proposed a wage floor of $11.75 to workers at developments that have received local government subsidies. The de Blasio campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Detractors of a New York City-specific minimum wage include Republican nominee Joe Lhota, who warns higher wages could curb job creation. Lhota’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Morales manages by living with her sister in Jamaica, Queens. In the house is her sister’s “40 something”-year-old nephew, his 14-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter. The family relies on both India and her sister getting food stamps to ensure that everyone gets fed.

“I don’t like to ask for anything, but I do like to help out with gas or other bills. It’s just tough because there are so many things I have to pay for,” she says.

Morales maintains a friendly relationship with Aliyah’s father although they are separated. Even so, she says she hasn’t been able to rely on him for financial support.

“He was working and he wasn’t giving me anything, and now it’s even worse as he’s not working at all. He can’t help himself out so he can’t help me…If I had that extra help, I wouldn’t be so stressed out.”

Five years ago, Aliyah used to take ballet lessons. But then “money got tight, and I had to go back to school,” said Morales, who is a trained nursing assistant.

She recently paid $1,100 for Aliyah to take gymnastics classes for five months, though she acknowledges this is stretching her budget. “She’s so active and I want her to have opportunities that all the other kids have,” says Morales.

“Even if I have to be broke myself, I’d rather see her happy, especially if the alternative is her at home being bored.”

Others on $8.50 an hour put a more positive spin on the situation. Michael Grant says he is prepared to walk an hour to work, even in winter, to save the cost of subway fare. Normally he bikes the 25 minutes from the South Bronx to Amir’s restaurant, on Broadway near Columbia University.

“Last week my bike was out of commission so I walked every day,” he says “I don’t think about it from a financial standpoint – it’s more that it’s not practical. Especially as South Bronx is only connected to east side train lines – it’d be an hour commute anyway, so I might as well save that money.”

Grant, 25, makes $8.50 an hour, and says an average week involves 39 hours at the restaurant. With the $26 he estimates he makes per day in tips, he normally makes about $1,600 a month after tax.

Grant cares for his paraplegic grandfather, London, who lives with him at the Mitchel Houses public housing complex. Every time Grant gets a paycheck, he hands about half the money to his grandfather to help with the bills and rent, which costs $370 a month. Occasionally London’s sister comes to help out.

Grant shakes his head at the suggestion of home health care.

“Maybe it would be hard for another 25-year-old. But not for me,” he says. “It is a challenge to take care of somebody else. But I’ve always been accepting of challenges. I love pressure.”

Grant says he has worked at previous minimum wage jobs, but has seen no change in his life between a job that paid $7.25 and the $8.50 he gets now.

“For me and I’m sure many other people, raising the minimum wage to $8 or $8.50 won’t change our situations,” he says.

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