- Associated Press - Thursday, May 7, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that the current wage paid to fast-food industry workers is “a fundamental violation of the promise of America” and told the state labor commissioner to put together a panel to issue a recommendation in a few months about what it should be.

“We have to raise the minimum wage law to fulfill the promise of the law when it was created,” Cuomo told a crowd of several hundred union members at a rally in Manhattan. “A safe, clean, decent way to live with honor and dignity beyond poverty.”

Fast-food workers have been fighting to get the minimum wage raised to $15 an hour for the past couple of years, and many in the crowd carried signs calling for that.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Cuomo said he was using his executive powers to address the issue. The Legislature didn’t approve his call for an increase in the minimum wage to $11.50 in New York City and $10.50 elsewhere in New York as part of the budget. Recommendations from the wage panel can be implemented without needing the approval of the legislature.

In calling for the panel, Cuomo also said increasing the minimum wage would benefit taxpayers, since a too-low wage has many fast-food workers relying on public assistance to make ends meet.

“What we’re really talking about is a state of affairs that has our economy commonly dealing with wage fraud from companies that don’t want to pay a minimum wage,” he said. “It’s about employee extortion. It’s about corporate irresponsibility. It’s about the misappropriation of taxpayer funds. It’s a fundamental violation of the promise of America.”

Shantel Walker, a fast-food worker who has been advocating for a higher wage for the past two years, was glad the panel was being put together. She said regardless of its recommendation, the fight to get $15 an hour would continue.

“We’re not going to stop until we win,” she said.

Cuomo’s move was met with both praise and criticism.

“Fast-food workers raised their voices in unison, and Gov. Cuomo was right to listen to them,” New York Working Families Party state director Bill Lipton said. “Hard-working families should not be consigned to poverty wages.”

“It is not the role of the governor to tell private-sector industries that they must operate in a way that aligns with his specific political agenda,” said the Assembly minority leader, Republican Brian Kolb. “Gov. Cuomo is undermining representatives elected by the people of New York. He is attempting to implement public policy by himself, usurping authority from the Legislature.”

People in the food industry criticized an increase that would impact one section and not others.

“Singling out a sector of one industry to have a higher minimum wage than all other occupations is unfair and arbitrary,” said Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association. “The minimum wage is rightfully set by the Legislature and should affect all businesses equally.”

Despite the praise heaped on him Thursday, Cuomo has had a complicated relationship with advocates of a higher minimum wage. His bid for a second term won the endorsement of the left-leaning Working Families Party last year, but only after Cuomo vowed to support priorities including a higher minimum wage. His proposed increase to $10.50 statewide and $11.50 in New York City disappointed New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and many Assembly Democrats who wanted a bigger bump.

Advocates of a higher wage had called on Cuomo’s last wage board to eliminate the subminimum wage paid to tipped workers, so they would be subject to the same minimum wage as other workers. Instead, the board recommended - and Cuomo’s labor commissioner later approved - an increase from $5 to $7.50 an hour starting Dec. 31.

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Associated Press writer David Klepper in Albany contributed to this report.

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