As Push for Higher Minimum Wages Grows, New York Offers a Test Case

on Nov16
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RIPLEY, N.Y. — Meeder’s, a cozy diner nestled in New York’s southwest corner, has seen its labor bill skyrocket in recent years amid steady increases in the state’s minimum wage.

To cover the costs, its owners have lifted menu prices and bought new equipment, including a mixer that allows them to churn out their 26 varieties of pie more efficiently. But with business booming, they have avoided laying off workers or cutting back on hours.

As the federal push for a $15 minimum wage gains momentum, local examples offer insight into how a hefty wage increase might work and whether concerns that higher pay could lead to job or income losses for vulnerable workers are justified.

Unemployment is at a half-century low, yet wage growth remains moderate and inflation is muted, making this a unique — and potentially optimal — environment in which to test higher wage floors.

The Times looked at the data several ways: zooming in on the restaurant industry, leaving out the contentious counties, and comparing counties like Chemung, Broome and Delaware only with their immediate neighbors. Each data slice showed a similar pattern in which neither side clearly won or lost when it came to employment but New Yorkers in affected industries earned more.

Comparing Chautauqua County with a Pennsylvania neighbor, Erie County, explains how employers adjust. The counties are similar. Both sit on Lake Erie’s steel-gray shore and are home to rolling fields of Concord grapes, seasonal hotels and wineries.

Restaurants in Chautauqua have seen annual pay climb by about 30 percent since 2012, the year before the first minimum wage increases were announced. Those in Erie have climbed by just 14 percent. Restaurants in Chautauqua have continued hiring since then, government data show.

“The economy is strong, and that has relieved the pressure, I think, and the impact,” said Bob Bentley, who works at Meeder’s and helps manage the diner, which his wife, Sheila, owns.

“I try not to go crazy — you’d rather sell out than throw out,” she said.

While hiring in Chautauqua as a whole has not pulled back, the experience of Haff Acres suggests that trends can mask individual experience. Ms. Southworth has scaled back to seven employees from 10 during the peak summer season, partly to cut costs and because seasonal workers are hard to find at a wage she can afford.

“They can go to McDonald’s and get a job for $12.75,” Ms. Southworth said. As the general minimum wage converges toward that level, she will have to downsize further. “At some point, I will probably have to close.”

Ben Casselman contributed reporting from New York.

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