Activists led chants for a $15-per-hour minimum wage from a step-ladder podium in Herald Square last Thursday. Three dozen Occupy demonstrators and local union members spoke up as passersby took leaflets or paused to listen.

The calls for a higher minimum wage are part of a growing movement to raise the minimum wage above the $9-per-hour level Governor Cuomo signed into law for 2016. Salaries like those in New York City’s burgeoning fast food industry are pitifully low, and the current floor of $7.25-per-hour doesn’t provide much of a safety net. The falling value of the minimum wage represents a damaging symptom of income inequality.

“That erosion has been an anchor pulling down wages for the lowest-paid workers in the country,” said Jack Temple, policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project and the author of a recent report counting government safety-net spending for fast food employees.

The number of fast food jobs in New York City jumped 30 percent in the past four years while overall private sector employment grew by just 3 percent, the Fiscal Policy Institute found. Fast food workers in the city earn an average of $8.90 an hour.

At such rates, it’s no wonder that sixty percent of New York state’s fast food workers receive Medicaid, food stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit, according to a report released Oct. 15 by researchers at the University of California and the University of Illinois. McDonald’s employees get $1.2 billion of the nearly $7 billion worth of public benefits fast food workers nationwide receive each year. Fast food employees in New York state alone receive $708 million per year in taxpayer-funded subsides despite earning salaries near the $9-per-hour level.

“Nine dollars ain’t going to cut it,” said Larry Hales, 36, one of the Peoples Power Assembly activists who participated in Thursday’s demonstrations. “You know, people have to continue to get food stamps and other supplements in order to survive.”

Minimum wage opponents are pushing the other way. Business interest groups and supportive analysts continue to hold that the minimum wage forces businesses to hire fewer employees, citing research like a July report by economists at Texas A&M University. With New Jersey set to vote Tuesday on raising the state’s minimum wage to $8.25 and tying it to the consumer price index, opponents are circulating research showing the state will lose thousands of jobs, primarily in the small business sector, if the measure passes.

“Businesses, particularly small businesses, run a very small profit margin,” said Laurie Ehlbeck, the New Jersey state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “You know, there’s not a money tree in the backyard.”

McDonald’s—whose $5.46 billion in profits in 2012 look like that money tree—appears on a list compiled by a consulting company named Great Place to Work of the 25 best multinationals to work for. The firm conducts anonymous and independent surveys of employees at more than 1000 participating businesses, according to Otto Zell, its director of international list management.

“The overall workplace experience at McDonald’s is outstanding relative to the competition,” said Zell, citing the “supportive” nature of the fast food giant’s employee of the week and month programs. He also said the worker questionnaires ask the employees if they believe they are fairly compensated.

Both McDonald’s and the National Restaurant Association declined requests for comment.

On the other side, worker advocates are coalescing behind the Fair Minimum Wage Act, a bill introduced to Congress earlier this year that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and then index it to the federal cost of living formula. Fast food workers hoping for a $15-per-hour minimum wage could be in for a long wait.

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