Albany County Candidates Split on Local Control of Minimum Wage

By Jordan Carleo-Evangelist Published on July 24, 2015

Both Albany County's Democratic Dans hailed this week's recommendation by the state Wage Board to hike the pay of upstate fast-food workers to $15 an hour by 2021. But while the two men vying for county executive — incumbent Dan McCoy and challenger Dan Egan — agree that low-wage workers should be paid more, they diverge on a local wrinkle to the issue.

Amid the unsuccessful fight last year for a statewide minimum wage hike, Senate Democrats — including Sen. Neil Breslin of Bethlehem — backed a bill to let local governments set their own minimums if state officials failed to ratify an across-the-board increase.

The thinking was local control would let communities set locally appropriate wages while putting pressure on state government to act.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo quickly poured cold water on the idea, saying it would create a crazy-quilt of wage variation and trigger cannibalism among neighboring communities for jobs.

McCoy seconded those concerns, telling the Times Union in February 2014 that "I do really believe that it should come from the governor and the Senate and Assembly — not that I say that too often.

"Some bigger businesses are going to say, 'I'm going to go to Schenectady because it's cheaper,'" McCoy continued. "People don't understand the ripple effect it has."

Egan disagrees. He said the Wage Board's recommendation — while a first step — is not enough. Egan called for an immediate increase to an $11 minimum wage with a rise to $15 before 2021.

(The state's $8.75 minimum wage is currently scheduled to rise to $9 on Dec. 31.)

"It should be rising substantially more, and it should be rising faster," Egan said.

And if the state doesn't act globally, he said, local governments should be empowered to do it themselves.

Egan, a state Health Department administrator, dismissed the concerns of regional competition, arguing that local control is an opportunity for governments to work together to drive up wages.

"What we ought to be doing is cooperating regionally — not competing with each other but cooperating to raise the regional minimum wage," Egan said

Cuomo later softened his position on local control to woo the labor-backed Working Families Party during last year's re-election campaign.

The governor pledged to support an increase to $10.10, tying that to the rate of inflation and allowing local governments to impose a minimum 30 percent above the state level. His position morphed further when his budget proposed a hike to $11.25 in New York City and $10.25 upstate.

The WFP is conspicuously sitting out this year's executive race — ostensibly because it could not bring itself to choose between McCoy and Egan.

Egan's seizure of the wage issue could be a bid to further link McCoy to Cuomo, whose popularity has sagged in recent months. Egan's most high-profile endorsement is from Cuomo rival Zephyr Teachout.

But McCoy's campaign called any attempt by Egan to criticize McCoy on the wage issue as misguided.

"County Executive McCoy has for years supported an increase in the minimum wage and has actively worked to improve the lives of working families," campaign spokesman Matt Cannon said.

Republican candidate Joseph Vitollo questioned the wisdom of such a large increase at all.

"The real problem is not whether or not the county should have control but what is the philosophy behind raising the minimum wage at fast-food restaurants?," said Vitollo, a registered nurse from Coeymans.

Vitollo called $9 "a fair minimum wage" and said the board's decision will squeeze out entry-level jobs that teach young people responsibility and how to manage money. He also predicted spillover that will hurt small businesses beyond fast food.

"There's a reason why I went to school, and that's because I wanted to make more money," Vitollo said. "Fifteen an hour? I know people who work in the hospital who are techs who take care of human beings and they don't get paid $15 an hour."

Green Party candidate Dan Plaat, meanwhile, said a true living wage should be closer to $20, and while he praised the hike to $15, he called the stepped increase over six years "unacceptable because living wages are needed now."

Plaat, who earns $12 an hour in a nine-months-a-year job as a test-packer for the state Education Department, said many are working more while effectively earning less as consumer prices rise.

He suggested greater employee ownership of businesses is one solution.

"If we want living wages for workers," he said, "perhaps workers should be in control of their wages."