California and New York on Monday became the first states to set their minimum wages at $15 per hour, a symbolic threshold long sought by worker advocates.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed his state's new minimum into law first. The state's 2016-2017 budget will, in part, gradually increase the minimum wage from the current $9 per hour to $15 per hour.
New York City workers would be covered by the law by the end of 2019, while most of the rest of the state would gradually increase to the $15 minimum according to a schedule based on economic indicators.
The state budget also includes a provision to establish 12 weeks of paid family leave.
“These policies will not only lift up the current generation of low-wage workers and their families, but ensure fairness for future generations and enable them to climb the ladder of opportunity," Cuomo said in a statement.
California Gov. Jerry Brown followed suit by signing legislation to lift the state's wage floor from $10 per hour to $15 per hour by 2022, although the governor can "pause" annual $1 increases in the event of a projected budget deficit or economic slowdown.
A $15 minimum wage would more than double the current federal minimum of $7.25 per hour, a level that proponents argue doesn't account for inflation and increased worker productivity — and effectively dooms some full-time workers to poverty.
President Obama praised the state-level measures and called for Congress to act to increase the national minimum wage.
"Since I first called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage in 2013, 18 states and more than 40 cities and counties have acted on their own," Obama said in a statement.
Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who attended the New York signing ceremony in Manhattan, predicted that wage increases would "sweep our nation."
The increases to date, however, took place largely in liberal-leaning cities and states. Republicans at the federal and state levels resisted minimum wage increases and argued that they would increase costs to businesses and ultimately hurt low-wage workers.
"Over 90 percent of our 22,000 small businesses across the state have told us in no uncertain terms that an increase in the minimum wage will negatively affect their ability to operate, and potentially put them at risk of closing their doors permanently,” said Tom Scott, executive director of California's chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Supporters argue that minimum wage increases instead help stimulate the economy — and job creation — and that they could help alleviate the yawning gap between rich and poor across the nation.
Brown said that although minimum wages might not make complete sense economically, "morally and socially and politically they make every sense."
"It binds the community together and makes sure that parents can take care of their kids in a much more satisfactory way," Brown said.