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Big legal gun takes aim at N.Y.’s $15 wage

A high-profile lawyer and veteran of the New York political scene has sent a letter on behalf of the restaurant industry to the acting labor commissioner of New York, spelling out the reasons why he should not raise the wages of quick-service restaurant employees to $15 an hour.

The communication from former New York City Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro is widely seen as a possible prelude to legal actions by his clients, the National Restaurant Association and a coalition of quick-service restaurants.

The letter was addressed to Mario Musalino, acting commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor. Musalino is due to act soon on a recommendation from an ad hoc Wage Board appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to recommend a wage hike only for fast-food workers.

Cuomo has the authority under New York law to change wages of a particular industry, an option that has seldom been exercised. Cuomo formed the Wage Board and directed it to recommend an increase in quick-service wages after he failed to ramrod a conventional minimum-wage increase through the legislature.

In his letter, Mastro argued in part that the Wage Board was “unlawfully constituted,” since it included a union official and a politician but not an employee who would be affected, as the board’s mandate warrants.

He also asserted that enacting a minimum wage by order of the executive branch would violate the separation of powers, and that targeting a sector of a single industry is “impermissibly narrow.”

Another objection raised was the definition of “fast-food.” Mastro said the Wage Board’s characterization was vague. It defined the applicable restaurants as links in a chain of at least 30 units nationwide.

The Board included with its recommendation a list of 137 restaurant operations that may or may not have met its criteria. The panel noted that the roster may not be inclusive of all applicable companies.

Mastro asked that the period allotted for commenting on the Wage Board recommendation be extended until the three-person panel releases testimony it heard before calling for the $15 wage.  Currently, Musalino has until the middle of next month to decide on a hike.

The Wage Board advised the acting labor commissioner to raise the minimum wage for New York City to $15 by 2018, starting with a rise to $10.50 before 2016.

Quick-service restaurants in other areas of the state would have three more years to hit the $15 benchmark, starting with an increase to $9.75 by Jan. 1.

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