Living Wage Campaign Focuses on New York

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Living Wage protest

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–For Rhonda Brathwaite, 29, a home care worker and a single mother, a living wage would mean she would earn $10 an hour, instead of $7.14. That increase of $2.86 translates into $6,520 a year, and that means she could pay her rent and bills on time, put better food on the table and take better care of her 7-year-old daughter, Sade.

“Some people usually pay their rent instead of buying groceries,” Brathwaite said in an interview after a June living wage rally by Local 1199, New York’s Health and Human Service Union of the Service Employees International Union. “And they definitely cannot pay rent and groceries on that type of income.”

Anything less than a living wage, argue advocates, is poverty.

The desire to enable paid workers such as Brathwaite to support their families, pay their bills on time and eat adequately every day is what moved labor unions, community associations and religious groups to launch a campaign in New York City, urging the city council to pass a law requiring city contractors and companies receiving city subsidies to pay their workers a living wage of at least $10 an hour, or $20,800 a year. The state and federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $17,650 annually or $9.70 an hour for a 35-hour work week, 52 weeks a year.

Living wage bills have already passed in more than 60 cities and counties, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. The latest two bills were passed in Santa Monica, Calif., on May 23 and in Suffolk County on Long Island, N.Y., on June 5. Living wage campaigns are also underway in more than 70 cities and counties nationwide, including Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

Nationwide, living wages apply only to firms doing business with or receiving subsidies from cities, counties or other entities that pass wage legislation.

New York City’s four Democratic mayoral candidates have pledged their support and more than 60 candidates for the 51-member city council say they would support it if it came before them. The advocates say they are optimistic about passage.

However, the legislation has yet to be introduced and therefore the business community has not yet weighed in with its views.

Over the years, efforts to significantly increase the federal minimum wage–the last increase was in 1996–have faltered because businesses say it is too expensive and will raise the cost of doing business, resulting in lost jobs, higher prices and failed enterprises.

Pending Bill Would Raise Wages for 100,000 New York Workers

However, a bill raising the federal minimum wage to $6.15 to $6.50 has a good chance of success, according to Jen Kern, director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. A similar law raising the New York State minimum wage by $1.50 is also now being considered by the labor committee of the State Senate.

If the Living Wage law is passed in New York City, 100,000 workers for companies receiving city subsidies and contracts, as well as some city employees, would received a substantial increase in pay, according to Deirdre Schifeling, organizing director at the Working Families Party.

Relatively few city workers earn less than $10 an hour, said Paul Sonn, associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and principal author of the New York City living wage law. However, the law would apply to employees well beyond the city payroll..

Schifeling and others estimate women represent a disproportionate share–at least three-quarters–of those 100,000 New York workers in the service sector and in other low-paying jobs that could be affected. However, James Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, estimates women could represent as much as 85 percent of the people benefiting from a living wage in New York.

New York’s Living Wage of $10 Based on Family of Four, With Two Earners

The New York Living Wage Coalition determined $10-an-hour to be a living wage based on what it says a family of four, with two wage earners, needs to make ends meet without public assistance.

Although living wage bills have passed elsewhere since 1994, the campaign in New York City, the nation’s economic capital, would apply to many more workers than any other living wage law adopted or proposed.

“We talk about sweatshops all the time, about how people are demoralized, and how people are underpaid,” Ninfa Vassalo, director of Local 389 of District Council 1707, which represents city-contracted home care workers. “But this is what the city runs–a sweatshop.”

“That’s why we need a living wage for our workers,” she said in an interview. “We really do.”

New York has passed progressive legislation in the past. As early as in 1961, Mayor Robert Wagner signed into law the equivalent of living wage legislation, requiring city contractors and subcontractors to pay employees $1.50 an hour, instead of the $1 minimum wage of the time.

This was increased in 1972 to match the inflation rate, but subsequent bills were not approved. This precursor living wage would be worth about $11 today, if updated and adjusted to keep pace with inflation, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Paul Sonn, associate counsel at the center is the principal author of the proposed law.

No Comment From Manhattan Chamber of Commerce Chief

Nancy Ploeger, executive director of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment on the living wage campaign, saying she was not aware of it. Bruce Brodoff, spokesman for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, declined to answer questions for this article. The United States Chamber of Commerce did not return several phone calls.

But if other cities’ experiences are any indication, New York City businesses are likely to strongly oppose a living wage. Businesses usually contend that forcing them to pay a living wage will so increase their costs that they will have to cut jobs, relocate or go out of business. They argue that these unintended consequences of the law would outweigh the intended consequence–raising workers’ living standard.

Some experts disagree with this assessment, however. Recent research by Robert Pollin at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has found that the cost increase for businesses in living wage cities is fairly low–on the order of 1 percent to 2 percent of their total cost. Pollin is co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the university.

Supporters say a living wage law could even help businesses. Parrott, chief economist with the Fiscal Policy Institute, found that city contractors tend to face high rates of turnover, particularly for low-paid positions. Since studies show that raising wages will improve employees’ retention and productivity, savings in the hiring and training of workers will largely offset the increase cost for these businesses, Parrott said.

In addition, a living wage could benefit community life because spending will rise in the low-income communities where contract workers will get higher wages, he said.

For example, Betty Shells, 56, is a Bronx-based home care worker for a health agency with a city contract. She currently is paid $7.44 an hour and supports herself and her husband, a member of the Teamster Union who is currently unemployed. A living wage of $10 an hour, she said, would mean she could pay more than three bills with one paycheck. If the living wage law is passed, for Betty Shells and others like her it will be “like a different day,” she said.

Laurence Pantin is a journalist based in New York. She recently received an award from the Foreign Press Association to cover labor issues in Mexico and other international topics.

For further information, visit:

Working Families Party:
http://www.workingfamiliesparty.org

Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN:
http://www.acorn.org

Fiscal Policy Institute:
http://www.fiscalpolicy.org

Brennan Center for Justice:
http://www.brennancenter.org

Political Economy Research Institute:
http://www.umass.edu/peri


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