Harrison & Saiano: For a living wage

Alderman Mike Jones ’11 is sponsoring legislation that would make New Haven more livable for those who work in its government and its businesses. Since last spring, he has been working to increase New Haven’s living wage and expand it to include more workers in the city.

We support this effort. Katie ran for Ward 1 alderman in 2009 in order to work for policies, like Jones’, that provide for fair wages and adequate health care for New Haven employees. Sarah has worked at Yale for 20 years and has personally experienced the devastating impact that lack of access to living wage employment has on the lives of individuals and families in New Haven.

The proposal sponsored by Jones builds on the current ordinance requiring city contractors to pay their employees a wage sufficient to meet their basic needs. When it was first passed in 1997, it was one of the highest in the country. Unfortunately, over the last 13 years, this wage hasn’t kept pace with the increases in the cost of living in New Haven. Additionally, it has been applied to a very narrow set of those who work in the city. (It does not, for instance, apply to those who work for the city.) Alderman Jones’ proposal includes a realistic increase in the living wage as well as a requirement that employers provide health insurance or else pay a higher wage in compensation. Just as important, the new bill expands coverage to all workers paid for with significant city funds. If these changes are made, New Haven will once again be a leader in providing workers with a decent standard of living.

The current living wage required of New Haven government employees and contractors, at $12 an hour, is significantly higher than the Connecticut minimum wage of $8.25. Still, a full-time worker at that wage makes less than $25,000 a year before taxes — approximately a third of Connecticut’s median income of $68,595. Indeed, households with this income qualify for many forms of state and federal government assistance, suggesting that they are far from well-off. The proposed wage of $14.67 would net a full-time worker just $30,000. Though still fairly modest, this increase is an important step toward allowing New Haven families stable access to health care, housing and education.

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has objected to the proposed legislation, pointing to this year’s tight city budget. We share his concerns about New Haven’s bottom line, but we believe that providing families in New Haven with a real living wage is a key step toward addressing our city’s long-term budget woes. As University of California–Berkley professor Robert Reich summed it up last week in The New York Times, “Policies that generate more widely shared prosperity lead to stronger and more sustainable economic growth — and that’s good for everyone” (“How to end the great recession,” Sept. 2).

Today, income inequality is higher than it has been since the 1920s, and Connecticut has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor households in the nation. We must take measures to build and preserve a strong middle class. If New Haven’s workers are struggling to afford the bare necessities, they cannot spend at local businesses. Each resident who loses a home to foreclosure represents a reduction in the city’s tax income, as well as an irreparable blow to the stability and desirability of our neighborhoods. The increase in the living wage will also benefit the city of New Haven even more directly: The city, state and federal government currently spend substantial sums to provide necessary services for working families whose can’t make ends meet. By investing in creating good jobs, we can reduce the cost of providing those social services.

The 1997 victory for a living wage in New Haven was spearheaded by Alderman Josh Civin ’96 — a Yale student who held the same seat that Alderman Jones does now. Then, the Board of Aldermen made the choice to use city funds to support good jobs because New Haven residents and Yale students stood up together and demanded that their city make the responsible choice for its working families. If New Haven is going to have a living wage in more than name only, Mike Jones and his allies on the Board of Aldermen need the same commitment from his constituents — Yale students. The next few months will offer an opportunity for residents and students to once again stand together in support of working families, most crucially at hearings before the Board of Aldermen. We ask that you come and make your voices heard.

Katie Harrison is a senior in Berkeley College. Sarah Saiano is a research assistant at the Medical School and the District 49 representative of UNITE HERE Local 34. She is currently on a leave of absence working full-time for Local 34.

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