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By Sebastien Malo

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York moved on Wednesday to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers to $15 an hour by the end of 2018 in New York City and by mid-2021 in the rest of the state.

The New York Wage Board voted unanimously for the increase, which would cover some 180,000 workers statewide and affect fast-food chains with 30 locations or more in the United States.

The three-member board was formed at the behest of Governor Andrew Cuomo in May after the state legislature turned down his proposals for minimum wage increases for most workers.

Its decision does not need legislative approval, but requires approval by the state labor commissioner, which is expected.

“This is going to help hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, but this is going to do something else,” said a beaming Cuomo at a jubilant rally in New York City celebrating the vote. “Because when New York acts, the rest of the states follow.”

With the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour since 2009, labor and religious groups have pressed state and local governments to enact pay raises as their hopes dim for an increase by the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress.

Last month, Los Angeles set its minimum wage to rise from $9 an hour to $15 by 2020, affecting some 600,000 workers.

Seattle and San Francisco also have increased minimum wages in recent years.

A statewide wage increase for fast-food workers as opposed to city-based would be a first, said the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The rise to $15 an hour marks a major step from New York’s current minimum wage of $8.75.

“I feel fabulous,” said Harley Perez, 19, who work 30 hours a week at a fast-food restaurant but depends on food stamps to get by.

“I won’t have this chokehold with bills, and I won’t need to depend so much on the government for help,” she said.

Sixty percent of New York’s fast-food workers rely on some form of public benefit to supplement their earnings, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.

The increase would be phased in, taking effect by the end of 2018 in New York City and by July 1, 2021, in the rest of the state.

Business groups and other critics slammed the decision as discriminatory because it singles out one industry, and legal challenges are expected.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Mohammad Zargham)

Photo: Protesters rally during demonstrations asking for higher wages in the Manhattan borough of New York April 15, 2015. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

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