A campaign of marches, strikes, and protests are occurring today (April 14, 2016) in over 300 cities and over 40 countries, as part of the so-called “Fight for $15.” News reports largely focus on the protests’ stated goal—to raise the minimum wage nation-wide to $15 an hour. These reports highlight recent legislation in New York State and California to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The Fight for $15, however, is not focused solely on wages. Led by the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”), the Fight for $15 campaign is a non-traditional attempt to promote unionization in traditionally non-unionized industries.
This article discusses the increases made to the minimum wage across the nation, how the Fight for $15 also intends to promote unionization efforts, and the Fight for $15’s impact on employers.
Minimum Wage Increases Across the Country
The national minimum wage—a nationwide floor on the wages of nonexempt employees who are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act—is currently $7.25 per hour.[i] On April 4, 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, signed legislation that will gradually increase the minimum wage in their respective states to $15 per hour.[ii] Further, Massachusetts will increase the minimum wage for Medicaid home care workers to $15 per hour by 2018, and dozens of other cities and municipalities, including Seattle, Washington will do the same.[iii] Other states and cities will also increase the minimum wage to over $10 per hour, including Oregon (up to $14.75 by 2022), Chicago ($13.00 by 2019), and Washington, D.C. ($11.50 by 2016).[iv]
The Fight for $15’s Promotion of Unionization
Although the media typically characterizes the Fight for $15 campaign as a fight to raise the minimum wage, the campaign also seeks to promote unionization efforts.[v] As a result, the Fight for $15 does not necessarily end when minimum wages are raised. For example, in Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (“UPMC”) will voluntarily increase its minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2021; however, UPMC employees anticipate participating in the Fight for $15’s April 14, 2016 strikes to protest the lack of a union.[vi]
The Fight for $15’s push for unions also highlights a key strategic choice the SEIU is making in its attempt to unionize low-wage workers in the retail and restaurant industries. Employees in the retail and restaurant industries are notoriously difficult to unionize due to high turnover.[vii] While traditional unionization efforts focus on winning over workers at their individual workplace, the Fight for $15 seeks to create momentum on a national scale with the ultimate goal of unionizing large national employers in the retail and restaurant industries.
Impact on Employers
The Fight for $15 continues to have a tremendous impact on employers across the country. The April 14, 2016 strikes undoubtedly are causing significant disruptions to employers, particularly in the restaurant and retail industries. Increases in the minimum wage will result in substantial cost increases for employers, likely resulting in employees either losing their jobs, or suffering a reduction in hours. A smaller workforce with thin coverage will also reduce the quality of service the employer is able to provide to its customers.
The Fight for $15 is significant for its goals of increasing the minimum wage and making unions more relevant to today’s workers. Both goals, if realized, will have a significant impact on a broad range of employers. The direct impact of an increased minimum wage is clear. Moreover, union campaigns present a unique host of challenges for employers, and if unionization efforts are successful, employers will face additional burdens and cost increases.
[i] See 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq.; see also 29 CFR Parts 510-794. For tipped employees, the federal minimum wage is $2.13 per hour, provided the employee receives at least $30 per month in tips. Many states have their own minimum wage laws. Where an employee is subject to both the state and federal minimum wages, the employee is entitled to the higher of the two minimum wages.
[ii] Gerald B. Silverman, New York Governor Signs Minimum Wage, Family Leave Bill, Bloomberg BNA, Daily Labor Report (Apr. 4, 2016); Laura Mahoney, California Governor Signs $15 Minimum Wage Bill, Bloomberg BNA, Daily Labor Report (Apr. 4, 2016). Legislation in New York State and California set forth a schedule of minimum wage payments that increase over several years, and which vary depending on geographic region and/or the size of the employer. In New York City, for employers with at least eleven (11) employees, the minimum wage will increase to $11 per hour by the end of 2016, then to $13 per hour by the end of 2017, and finally to $15 per hour by the end of 2018. For New York City employers with ten (10) or fewer employees, the minimum wage will increase to $10.50 by the end of 2016, and increase $1.50 each year for three years. For employers in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties, the minimum wage will increase to $10 per hour by the end of 2016, and increase $1 each year for five years. In Upstate New York, the minimum wage will increase to $9.70 per hour by the end of 2016, and then increase $0.70 per hour for four years until it reaches $12.50, at which point the state will conduct a study to determine whether to continue or suspend the increases. In California, for employers with more than twenty-five (25) employees the minimum wage will increase to $10 per hour in 2017, and increase $1 per hour until it reaches $15 per hour in 2022. Employers with twenty-five (25) or fewer employees will have until 2023 to pay the $15 per hour minimum wage.
[iii] National Employment Law Project, Fight for $15 Impact Report: Raises for 17 Million Workers, 10 Million Going to $15, NELP Fact Sheet (April 2016).
[v] Dave Jamieson, Low-Wage Workers Plot Their Next ‘Fight for $15’ Strike, Huffington Post (Apr. 13, 2016), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/fight-for-15-strike_us_570d7df9e4b08a2d32b84ac9 (last accessed Apr. 14, 2016).
[vii] Jamieson, supra note 5.