05/24/2012 01:31 pm ET

Raise Minimum Wage, NY Business Leaders Urge Cuomo, GOP

As lawmakers in Albany, N.Y., contemplate a boost to the state's minimum wage, a group of business leaders came out Thursday in support of hiking the wage floor from $7.25 to $8.50, putting unusual pressure on state Republicans and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to shepherd the raise into law.

It's typically low-wage worker advocates and labor unions urging lawmakers to raise the minimum wage. So the statements made Thursday by business figures, including the head of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce and an executive of big-box wholesaler Costco, undermine the stated concerns of some GOP lawmakers and industry lobbies that a $1.25 raise to the minimum wage would be an unfair burden on state businesses.

"We need to urge our legislators to vote on this bill. If they don’t get it done this year, it's not going away," Mark Jaffe, president of the Greater New York Chamber, said on a conference call with reporters. "Of course retailers and fast food [companies] with big powerful lobbyists want us to think this will chase business out of the state. But that’s not what we [heard] back from our membership."

Business for a Shared Prosperity, which hosted the call and bills itself as "network of forward-thinking business owners, executives and investors," said Thursday that more than 200 small business owners in the state had signed a joint statement saying that a higher minimum wage would be good for businesses, as well as workers.

Despite the extremely high cost of living in the New York City area, the minimum wage for New York State is still the lowest that federal law will allow. Eighteen states have laws that mandate higher minimum wages than the federal minimum of $7.25, which translates into a salary of about $15,000.

The Democratic-controlled New York State Assembly has already passed a bill that would mandate the $1.25 raise, but the legislation faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled state Senate. Cuomo, a Democrat, nominally supports the raise, but proponents on the left feel that the governor hasn't put his full weight behind the measure, perhaps wary of alienating some of the businesses he's worked hard to court.

The stumping by business leaders on Thursday was clearly intended to alleviate some of those concerns. Jaffe, for instance, said that over 80 percent of the Chamber members polled supported not merely a raise to the minimum wage but the implementation of an $11.50 living wage. (Jaffe's position stands in stark contrast to that of the national Chamber of Commerce, which opposes minimum wage increases as a matter of course.)

Jeff Long, Costco senior vice president and general manager for the company's Northeast operations, said that raising the minimum wage is in line with the wholesaler's corporate ethos. (The proposed New York wage raise probably wouldn't affect Costco -- at least not directly -- since the company already bears a reputation for paying wages well above retail averages.)

"Since the inception of the company we've always believed that paying a fair starting wage and allowing employees to progress through the wage scales is the best way to run our business," Long said. "I think that the $8.50 proposal is something that would be very fair for all businesses, big and small."

Despite the support of many individual businesses, the minimum wage proposal has drawn strong opposition from the Business Council of New York State, a major trade group. Upon the Assembly's passage of the bill earlier this month, the council released a statement saying that "it's unconscionable to place this burden on small-business owners, who are already struggling under state-imposed mandates."

Cuomo said earlier this week that a minimum-wage raise wasn't politically "in the realm of the possible," due to the intransigence of state GOP leaders. "I support the concept of a minimum wage increase," the governor said on "Capitol Pressroom." "The Senate feels quite strongly about their position."

Declaring it a "job killer" that would undermine a fragile recovery, state Senate leader Dean Skelos (R) has said the minimum-wage legislation won't even get a floor debate.