Students hope to expand living wage

Backed by Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04 and a group of interested Yale students, a proposal to expand New Haven’s living-wage ordinance may soon be before the Board of Aldermen.

The ordinance currently in place, which was passed in 1997, requires city contractors to pay their employees a base-level wage which increases annually and is currently set at $11.10 an hour. The potential expansion of the ordinance would involve two changes: The legislation would be broadened to include all businesses that receive at least $100,000 in city assistance, such as tax deferrals or below-market land sales; and affected employers would also now be required to provide either health benefits or an additional $1.50 per hour to their employees.

A group of Yale students, led by former aldermanic candidate Dan Weeks ’06, is currently working with Healey to promote living-wage expansion. Healey, who initially drafted the proposal roughly a year ago, may officially present the proposal to the board as soon as April 18. Healey said the students’ interest in living wage expansion put the issue “back on his radar screen.”

“The goal of an expanded living-wage ordinance would be to ensure that public dollars, when going to subsidize private companies for development, are used to create … jobs that pay a living wage and provide health benefits,” Healey said. “The public dollar essentially should not be subsidizing poverty wages.”

Weeks, who on Monday announced he will not challenge Rebecca Livengood ’07 to a Democratic primary, is considering forming a political action committee to work on pushing for living-wage expansion and other progressive issues. Livengood said she supports the initiative.

“This was one of the central issues of the campaign and, I think, a key issue for the city,” Weeks said. “We want to ensure that anybody who works hard, who works full time, has the ability to afford housing and to afford the basic necessities to provide for a family.”

Expansion of the proposal could potentially affect plans for downtown development. If the living-wage ordinance is expanded and a proposed conference center is built on land vacated by the Coliseum demolition, Healey said the conference center would likely be subject to the expanded living-wage regulations. However, the living-wage expansion proposal includes an exemption for businesses with unionized employees.

Rob Smuts ’01, deputy chief of staff for Mayor John DeStefano Jr., said the mayor looks forward to seeing a living-wage proposal and examining its potential impact.

“We’re interested in working with … folks who are interested to look at it and see where it might be appropriate to revise or expand or otherwise modify the existing ordinance,” Smuts said.

Ward 9 Alderwoman Elizabeth Addonizio GRD ’06, who worked with Healey to research the possibility of expanding the living wage, said she thinks a number of members of the Board of Aldermen would likely look favorably upon such legislation.

“I would say, by and large, most of the board members are fairly progressive, so I would imagine there would be a great deal of support for this,” Addonizio said.

But Healey cautioned that there may be some controversy when he puts forward a specific proposal.

“I’m not sure that this is a slam-dunk with everybody on the board,” Healey said. “It’s consciously on the side of workers and requiring businesses to honor certain agreements.”

Research conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in 2002 concluded that living-wage laws in 36 cities, including New Haven, in general caused slight job losses but led to overall decreases in family poverty. But some economists doubt the overall value of the wage, saying that it does little to improve quality of life while coming at a great cost to the local government. Some also argue that any sort of living-wage should target low-income workers as opposed to workers with low wages.

New Haven’s current living wage ordinance was proposed by former Ward 1 Alderman Josh Civin ’96 and Ward 27 Alderman Philip Voigt in 1997. A number of other cities, including Boston, Chicago and Detroit, have enacted similar legislation.

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