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Fight for $15? NYC ethnic communities respond to minimum wage proposal


Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has called for a rise in the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. The new wage-minimum would not only affect fast-food workers — as was originally proposed — but employees in all industries. While labor unions and workers celebrated the announcement, the hike, which is over 70 percent, doesn’t please everyone. Reporters for Global City NYC visited neighborhoods around the city to ask local businesses and employees about the proposal. 


Fanca Sanoh

Owner, Kaba Beauty Supply in Central Harlem

Fanteh Sanoh , center (Photo by Emma Paoli, GlobalCityNYC)

Fanca Sanoh, at right (Photo by Emma Paoli, GlobalCityNYC)

Sanoh has run this shop, in the Harlem neighborhood known as Little Senegal, for 12 years. But the clientele is dwindling for her jewelry and imitations of luxury handbags. She has three employees and says “$10 an hour is the maximum I can give” them. An increase to $15 an hour is daunting; Sanoh wonders if that would put her out of business. If it did it would give her more time to pursue her new passion: Mosapac, a women’s association that she created to support President Alpha Condé for the upcoming Guinean presidential elections. “Three hundred women have already joined us, and 600 will attend our first event,” says Sanoh, who is from Guinea.



Ismail Abubakari

Ismail Abubakari (Photo by Jianghanhan Li, GlobalCityNYC)

Ismail Abubakari

Co-owner, Askia Wireless in Central Harlem

Ismail Abubakari, from Ghana, runs a 3-year-old computer shop on 116th Street in Harlem, home to many businesses owned by West Africans. Before settling here, Abubakari worked for eight years in Guangzhou, China. He’s a fluent Mandarin speaker and says he misses the spicy Sichuan food. He uses his connections in Guangzhou to import computer products from China. But business is slow, so he recently took on another part-time job as a security guard. An increase in the minimum wage would mean charging customers more, but Abubakari thinks workers need it. “Life here is expensive, rent and food,” he says. For people living in New York City, “$15 is not high. It could be $20.”




Miguel Lopez (Photo by Qinglin Li, GlobalCityNYC)

Miguel Lopez (Photo by Qinling Li, GlobalCityNYC)

Miguel Lopez

Owner and Manager, Don Paco Lopez Panaderia and Don Paco Lopez Mexican Food in East Harlem

Thirty years ago, when Lopez was 18, he was a dishwasher in midtown Manhattan making $2.50 an hour. He shared a room with four other people in order to be able to afford rent. Now, he’s worked his way up through a series of kitchen jobs to become co-owner and manager of two east Harlem businesses. Lopez doesn’t think raising the minimum wage will benefit anyone very much. “Of course the workers will have more pay, but they will have to spend more money” because businesses like his will raise their prices. His prediction if minimum wage goes to $15 an hour: The politicians who support it may get more votes, but “I will be bankrupted in less than a year.”





Minayvar Vahabova (Photo by Steven Bisaha, GlobalCityNYC)

Minayvar Vahabova (Photo by Steven Bisaha, GlobalCityNYC)

Minayvar Vahabova

Owner, Azerbaijani House restaurant in Brooklyn

Vahabova immigrated to the U.S. eight years ago from Azerbaijan. Her first job, as a home attendant, paid $10 an hour. “I was so happy,” she says. “Because a lot of people getting eight dollars, seven dollars, even five dollars.” Vahabova says most of the workers in her restaurant make about around $10 an hour. She is not concerned about Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to increase minimum wage to $15. If it happens, she says, she’ll “do something else for increasing our business.” But she adds that she thinks opposition will be stiff, and the governor’s proposal will not become reality.



Orlando Arangboles (Photo by Bernat Ivancsics, GlobalCityNYC)

Orlando Arangboles (Photo by Bernat Ivancsics, GlobalCityNYC)

Orlando Arangboles

Owner, El Gran Vale IV bistro in Washington Heights

Arangboles opened his bistro, on Amsterdam Ave. between 156th and 157th Streets, a year ago. A Dominican national flag stretched across one wall is reflected endlessly by mirrors on the opposite side. Dominican merengue plays in the background. Arangboles says his waitresses are paid New York’s current minimum wage, $8.75 an hour, and his chefs make $11. He says he would be OK with raising salaries a couple of dollars an hour, but thinks a jump to $15 might endanger his fledgling business: “Fifteen dollars?” he says. “That would make it really difficult … maybe $10.50 or $11.” If the legal minimum increases, though, “I will follow the law because I am a person who follows the law. But I think this law could wait for a while.”




Mitchel Lodchevsky on the right, and Jon Grezda on the left (Photo by Dien Luong, GlobalCityNYC)

Mitchel Lodchevsky on the right, and Jon Grezda on the left (Photo by Dien Luong, GlobalCityNYC)

Mitchel Lodchevsky and Jon Grezda 

Workers, Carvel in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn 

Lodchevsky, a 22-year-old American student who works part-time at the Carvel ice cream shop on Fifth Avenue, said even though he currently makes the minimum wage, $8.75, any wage raise should factor in those who already get $15 an hour. “It’s not about the raise to $15. It’s about other people who are working for almost $15 an hour now: people in uniform, people in service,” said Lodchevsky, a sophomore at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn. “So it’s OK for them to raise, it but everybody should also get a raise. Because even $15 is not enough to live in average neighborhoods.”

Grezda, 21, said they were also concerned that the wage raise would somehow fuel exploitation at work. “Just imagine how the bosses are going to treat their employees,” he said. “Maybe they’re going to think that since they are paying you almost double, they’re going to make you work twice hard.” In addition, he said: “The taxes should be a little bit less, people can afford to pay their employees more. There needs to be some thoughts into what’s going to change because of that.”



Jessica Li  (Photo by Ji Liu, GlobalCityNYC)

Jessica Li (Photo by Ji Liu, GlobalCityNYC)

Jessica Li

Receptionist, Healthier Imaging & Lab Inc. in Chinatown, Manhattan

Jessica Li is one of four receptionists working at a Chinatown clinic. She earns $12 an hour there — and at her second job, as a part-time Chinese language teacher. Li moved to New York from Guangzhou, China, where she had a trading company and owned her own car. In New York, almost all of her earnings go to pay rent, buy food and cover transportation. “If the minimum wage is raised to $15 an hour, it is great for me!” says Li. “I could save some money for travels and buy some clothes to improve my life.” Then, in a lower voice, she adds that if there’s a minimum wage hike, “Probably one of us four receptionists will get fired, and the other three will share the workload of four.”




Marie Germaine

Marie Germain (Photo by Christopher Huffaker, GlobalCityNYC)

Marie Germain
Live-in housekeeper in Brooklyn

On a September weekend, Marie Germain’s visor, emblazoned with the Haitian flag, protected her from the late summer sun as she chatted with friends in Prospect Park. The area by Parkside Avenue subway station is a traditional weekend gathering place for New York’s Haitians. Germain is a live-in housekeeper, paid $9.50 an hour for four 12-hour shifts each week — though she is expected to be available at other times as well. On the weekend after Gov. Cuomo proposed making $15 the state’s new minimum wage, Germain hadn’t heard about the plan yet. “I don’t have time to watch TV,” she says, but adds: “I would be glad to get it.”




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