05/21/2014 10:00 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

Seattle Leads, But Will New York Follow?

There's a core American value that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to provide for your family and live a decent life. Today, for three million working New Yorkers, that's simply no longer true.

New York State should be a national leader in the fight to restore the ability of low-wage workers to support their families. However, we're dead last in income inequality. And while other cities and states take bold action, we are falling even farther behind.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray recently proposed raising his city's minimum wage to $15 an hour, almost twice New York's rate. His plan, which has the support of business, labor and community groups is a two-tiered approach: Employers with more than 500 workers around the country would be fast-tracked, reaching $15 an hour by 2017, while smaller employers would have until 2021 to get there.

It's not just Seattle. President Obama has proposed increasing the federal minimum wage significantly beyond New York's, to $10.10 an hour. Washington state has a $9.32 an hour minimum. Oregon is $9.10, and Vermont is at $8.73. And let's not forget our neighbors in Connecticut -- they just approved $10.10, as did Hawaii.

In fact, other expensive cities are even higher: San Francisco's minimum wage is $10.74 and Santa Fe's is $10.66. The city council of Richmond, Cal., has approved an increase to $12.30, and Sea-Tac, which houses Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, has raised salaries to $15.

$15 an hour translates to $31,200 annually (at 52 40-hour work-weeks). According to the Center for Economic Opportunity, that's just about the earning level a family of four needs to be raised out of poverty in the five boroughs. On the other hand, our current $8 an hour minimum translates to a paltry $16,640 a year, well below the federal poverty line and the city standard for a family of four.

The spread of fast food strikes to 150 US cities and more than 30 countries on six continents is proof that there is support for demanding that big corporations pay their workers a sustainable wage, particularly since there is an uneven impact to today's low wage floor. Fast food workers in New York are overwhelmingly black and Latino; women are disproportionately represented in New York's low-wage workforce, making up 53 percent of all low-wage workers and more than two-thirds of fast food workers.

One bill in Albany, known as the RaiseUpNY Act and sponsored by State Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly member Karim Camara, would let high-cost areas around the state raise the local minimum wage to lift fast food, airport, car wash and other low-wage workers out of poverty -- and toward the middle class.

The approach is tried and tested, with proven results. In California, for example, San Francisco and San Jose's higher wages not only put money back into workers' pockets and gave the local economy a boost -- they also created upward pressure on the state minimum wage. It is also popular: A recent poll showed that 73 percent of New Yorkers from around the state support giving cities and counties the right to supplement the minimum wage.

In addition, I have introduced the "Fair Wage Act," along with Assembly member Nily Rozic, which would require large employers and chain stores to pay employees $15 an hour indexed to inflation.

Just as Seattle has done, this proposal recognizes that many of the biggest, most profitable companies, from McDonald's to Walmart, pay their workers the least. And taxpayers pick up the tab for the poverty wages that these big corporations are allowed to pay, in the form of food stamps, housing subsidies and other safety net support that these full-time workers need just to survive. In other words, today's poverty wages require massive public subsidies for the biggest corporations, at taxpayer expense. Allowing McDonald's to pay $8 an hour doesn't just drive individuals onto welfare, it's an ugly form of corporate welfare.

It is time for New York to lead the way in the fight for decent wages for all its workers. That's why we're urging lawmakers to get behind these bills and do the right thing to help the three million hard-working New Yorkers who earn poverty wages.