Jones ’11 continues to push living wage hike

It was standing-room only in the Aldermanic Chambers of New Haven City Hall Wednesday evening, as Yale community members and New Haven residents gathered to hear Ward 1 Alderman Mike Jones’ ’11 plan to raise the minimum wage for city employees and corporate and nonprofit partners.

Jones and three other aldermen advanced yet another version of their plan to raise the city’s living wage — the minimum considered necessary to live on — for individuals employed by the city and entities that have contracts with or receive funding from the city. Jones proposed an increase from $12 per hour to $14.67 per hour, up from the at least $1 increase he brought before the board in April.

During the more than four-hour meeting, over a dozen city officials, union representatives and public policy experts weighed the effects the legislation might have on the city’s economy and quality of life. Proponents said the increase would keep workers out of poverty, but opponents said it would be costly and hurt small businesses and nonprofits.

Jacquelyn Wright, who makes $11.50 per hour, less than the current $12.00 per hour living wage, was on the verge of tears as she spoke about how she has to work a second job to make ends meet and described the struggles she and her family face.

“It’s just a disrespect to have a job with such a miserable wage… We’re working and we’re still struggling,” she said. “We’re tired from two jobs, we’re tired from long hours — I’m giving my best, but I don’t feel like its my best because I’m so tired and frustrated.”

But Kia Murrell, assistant counsel for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, which promotes business in the state, said that while the wage ordinance is well-intended, few people realize that small businesses in the state are ill-equipped to absorb the higher labor costs that would result from the increased living wage because these business have slim profit margins.

“Things aren’t good here [in Connecticut]. They haven’t been for a while, and they are probably going to get worse if public policy bodies like this Board of Aldermen, the state legislature and others consider anti-business legislation like this,” said Murrell, whose organization represents more than 10,000 companies in Connecticut. Murrell also said the proposal would hurt small businesses by requiring them to cover their employees’ healthcare costs, including paid sick leave.

If passed, the proposal would require employers either to provide health benefits or to augment the employees’ base pay by a set amount. Tsedeye Gebreselassie, an attorney for the National Employment Law Project, an organization that advocates for lower-wage earners’ rights, said 140 cities across the country have living-wage laws with the same stipulation and that every time the issue has gone to court, rulings have come down in favor of the wording contained in Jones’ proposal.

Kara Capone MPH ’03, director of programs at New Haven Home Recovery, a shelter for women and children, said her nonprofit would have to abide by the new living-wage laws, and she said she knows it would negatively impact her organization, which is already running a deficit.

In an interview at the meeting, Hugh Baran ’09, who is coordinating the living-wage issue for UNITE HERE, which includes local unions 34 and 35, and the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, a nonprofit that promotes the wellbeing of Connecticut’s working families, said it is important to remember that Jones’s current proposal is a living wage ordinance not for all small businesses but only for those that do business and are affiliated with the city. He said one hurdle proponents face is that they think even City Hall cannot compile an accurate list of just what organizations would be affected by the bill.

Jones said he has been asking City Hall for the list. Finance committee chair and Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah asked Jones to provide a list of the organizations the proposal would affect the next time the board’s finance and legislation committees convene.

New Haven first implemented a living wage in 1997.

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