Living wage moves ahead

Alon-Harish_livingwage-photo
Photo by Alon Harish.

Ward 1 Alderman Michael Jones’ ’11 proposal to expand the city’s living wage law has taken a big step forward.

The proposal, one of Jones’ most significant legislative initiatives, would increase the minimum hourly wage the city must pay its employees from $12 to $14.67 and extend that requirement to companies with substantial city contracts. At a joint meeting of the Finance and Legislation Committees of the Board of Aldermen Wednesday night, aldermen voted to recommend the proposal, breathing new life into an effort that has stalled for nearly a year.

“I understand that these are tough times for the city and its residents, but these are also tough times for the people who serve the city as cafeteria workers, custodians and those who serve in other capacities,” Jones said in his testimony.

Despite making it one of the centerpieces of his term, Jones’ proposal has met roadblocks at City Hall over the past year.

When the Board of Aldermen first heard the proposal in August, it met strong opposition due to fears about its fiscal impact on the city and potential burdens it could impose on employers. A day after a lengthy public hearing, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. called it fiscally unrealistic.

But since then, several discussions with DeStefano’s administration have resulted in a significantly less expansive proposal that covers fewer categories of city employees and exempts nonprofits from the living wage minimum.

Jones and his co-sponsors deserve praise for their willingness to work with the administration to make the proposal more fiscally realistic, Benton said.

The vast majority of city employees already earn over $14.67 per hour, so the main impact of Jones’ proposal would be on private companies with city contracts, said Elizabeth Benton, DeStefano’s liaison to the Board of Aldermen. The city has no way to analyze how the proposal would affect the city’s cost of contracting or how contractors would respond to the increased living wage, she added.

Some critics have predicted that companies forced to increase employee wages in order to contract with the city will either lay off workers or do business in other cities, said Ward 9 Alderman Matt Smith ’98, who testified in support of the proposal. But those predictions are overblown, Smith said, because businesses covered by the proposal — only those with contracts worth more than $100,000 — can afford to either accept lower profits or raise prices to respond to the mandate.

Jones added that a recent study by the Political Economy Research Institute showed that the city’s contracting costs actually decreased in the four years after the first living wage ordinance was enacted.

Sacrifices would need to be made in the budget to accommodate the proposal, said Goldson, who is known for his aversion to new city expenditures. Expanding the living wage deserves to be prioritized in the city’s budget even if other cuts are needed as a result, Goldson said, adding that he and Jones plan to present suggestions for such cuts soon.

Testifying in support of the legislation was State Representative and former Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar, who said the city has a moral responsibility to expand its living wage law to workers on city contracts.

“Government should not be in the business of subsidizing poverty,” Lemar said. “If we’re giving subsidies to businesses, we should demand that they offer jobs that pay a living wage. We should protect these workers as fiercely as we protect all those working on behalf of our city.”

Adding his voice to Lemar’s moral argument was Pierson sophomore Ben Crosby ’13.

In Crosby’s hometown of Hanover Park, Ill., which does not having a living wage ordinance, he said his neighbors and friends have struggled to support themselves even with full-time employment.

“I’ve seen people forced to take second or third jobs, move back with relatives, or leave young children behind in order to make enough money just to scrape by,” Crosby said. “$12 an hour is simply not a living wage anymore, and it is time for us to declare that city jobs should be good jobs.”

The less expansive proposal, co-sponsored by Ward 30 Alderman Darnell Goldson, fared better at the Board of Aldermen Wednesday night, though not without hiccups.

A dispute about whether the Board of Aldermen had the authority to mandate a wage floor for employees of the Board of Education prompted a slight amendment to the proposal’s language. Jones said he looks forward to working with aldermen and the administration to examine legal issues with the proposal before it is acted upon, adding that he would not want a final vote to take place until details of the city’s budget become clearer.

Living wage legislation in New Haven dates back to the work of Alderman Josh Civin ’96 LAW ’03 and Philip Voigt, who spearheaded the city’s first living wage law in 1997.

The proposal now heads to the full Board of Aldermen, although it will not be acted upon until May.

Comments

  • Andreology

    Unfortunately, the city cannot afford this. What all citizens of New Haven need is an economically vibrant city with low taxes, so as to attract employers. The unintended result of a living wage will be to raise taxes and chase more businesses away from Connecticut to North Carolina.