Heading to work at McDonald's one recent morning, Evelisse Perez, 19, collapsed on her way to the door. Her mother took her to a hospital, where a doctor said she had overworked her body to exhaustion. She spent a week in bed, attached to an IV drip. Though she quit her second job as a bartender in the wake of the incident, she still gets headaches and anxiety attacks.
Perez, who attends night school, still works at a Manhattan McDonald's, she told members of New York's wage board Monday. Most weeks, she gets 30 hours. In a good week, she said she can get as many as 36. Either way, at near-minimum wage, Perez can't make ends meet in the city.
Her testimony, to the state government panel investigating hourly pay in the fast-food industry, was one anecdote among dozens told by fast-food workers during the hearing.
But if their tales succeed in convincing the wage board to order a pay hike in the industry, the result won't just be more dollars in their pockets each month. Success in obtaining a pay rise in New York — which would be the first of its kind in the country — will form part of a precedent the labor movement plans to export to cities across America.
Leaders of the Fight for 15 movement to raise fast-food wages say they plan to treat a $15 sector-wide minimum wage in New York as a springboard to a well of strategic next steps for their campaign: calls for wage board hearings in other friendly cities and states, a renewed focus on city and state legislatures, and the use of these tactics to raise wages in other low-pay industries.
Governors in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, to name just a few, have similar authority to raise the minimum wage on their own without need for action by the legislature, according to a fact sheet put out by the National Employment Law Project.
In New York, success by fast-food workers will be followed by similar moves on behalf of other minimum wage workers, said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, an organization that backs the Fight for 15 campaign.
"Pay and working conditions are similarly bad in retail, airport work, and home health care work," Westin said.
Governor Andrew Cuomo convened the wage board in May to look at whether hourly wages for fast-food workers "are sufficient to provide for the life and health of those workers." If the board finds they are lacking, the governor is empowered to unilaterally enact a new wage floor. The method can apply to a specific industry or job classification.
Workers at McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Wendy's, Papa John's, Dunkin' Donuts, and elsewhere testified Monday, and at a previous hearing in Buffalo, that their wages are "insufficient" according to this standard.
"We're all in the same boat, and we're all sinking," said Julia Andino, 20, who makes $8.75 an hour at a McDonald's at 116th and Broadway in Manhattan. Some weeks, when she can't afford a MetroCard to get to work, she asks strangers for fares, then decides whether to spend her remaining wages on food or unpaid bills. She's spent time living in a shelter and said she gets panic attacks at work thinking about how she'll live until her next paycheck.
"I don't think anyone can live on $8.75," Andino said.
Workers told similar stories — choosing to go hungry or pay medical bills, to pay rent or let the lights go off, stock up on diapers or support a family member.
"There is nothing that would do more to combat inequality in New York City than raising the minimum wage so it reaches $15 an hour, while indexing it to inflation," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his testimony. "We'd be remiss to only focus our attention on this one sector of our economy. We all must do more to ensure that every worker gets a living wage."
At a Fight for 15 convention in Detroit last weekend, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry said the union will push for wage boards around the country, noting that there is an "increased consciousness around wages" since the Fight for 15 movement gained momentum. The SEIU would be focusing with "renewed confidence" on a push for unionization for all kinds of hourly workers, she said.
But before the wage board experiment expands elsewhere, all eyes are on New York, where leaders seem confident that a positive result is on the way.
"Cynics called demands for a $15 minimum wage unrealistic; it could never happen," Mayor de Blasio said in his testimony. Though the wage board has yet to make their official recommendation, de Blasio said, "The cynics have been proven wrong."