May 7 2003 12:00 AM

Will San Diego lawmakers embrace a living wage ordinance?

Republican gadfly Scott Barnett wants to get his hands on the living wage ordinance that, if all goes as planned, will face a City Council vote this fall. So far, he said, living wage proponents have been lobbying the City Council for support, but the public hasn't had a chance to review the details of the proposed law.

The ordinance, if passed, would add San Diego to the list of 13 California cities and 90 or so cities and counties nationwide that have already passed laws that mandate minimum pay for municipal workers and employees of companies that receive city money in exchange for services, such as landscapers, security companies and janitorial services.

Barnett's concern, however, is with nonprofits that are funded by city grants and tax revenue-such as homeless services, AIDS outreach and the 6-to-6 after-school program-groups that can rarely afford to pay their employees what they'd like to. A living wage, said Barnett, "is not good public policy; it'll hurt organizations that are already struggling." The San Diego Lincoln Club, of which Barnett is president, "will strenuously oppose anything that tries to regulate salaries," he said.

In an interview with CityBeat last week, the folks over at the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), a San Diego public policy think tank, acknowledged Barnett's concerns and said they were working closely with nonprofits to make sure a living wage ordinance wouldn't impact their ability to function.

It's a tough spot to be in, said Laura Benson, who's working on community outreach for CPI. Nonprofits want to provide quality services to those in need but can rarely pay their workers a decent wage, let alone cover healthcare costs. "Most of the people involved in nonprofits fundamentally believe in a living wage," she said, "but they really get caught up in these budget troubles."

"Nonprofits don't make up the bulk of the workforce that will be affected by a living wage," said CPI spokesperson Paul Karr. As for when Barnett-and the rest of the public-will be able to review the ordinance, Karr said there's been no sneaking around on CPI's part. The text of the ordinance has yet to be drawn up, and, as with any proposed law, it must run through the proper channels. Until then, the San Diego Living Wage Coalition is organizing community meetings to rally public support.

According to Boston's Living Wage Resource Center, a total of 103 cities, counties, school districts, colleges and universities have passed laws entitling workers to an hourly wage that will not only lift them out of poverty but also provide them with enough income for healthcare if their employer doesn't already foot that bill.

New York City, the most recent addition to the list, now pays 50,000 people employed by contractors hired by the city $8.10 an hour plus health benefits, or $9.60 an hour if the contractor doesn't offer health insurance. The New York ordinance also promises wage increases over the next three years. It's a relatively sweet deal considering federal minimum wage has remained stagnant at $5.15 since 1997-a wage few employers actually pay their workers but nevertheless a baseline that determines hourly rates for traditionally low-paying jobs.

The San Diego Living Wage Coalition's proposed hourly wages are ambitious compared to most other cities, though by no means extravagant: $11.95 for workers whose employers provide health insurance and $13.92 for workers without health insurance. Living wage figures are determined either by what it would take to lift a family of four out of poverty (as is the case with New York City's figures) or they're based on the city's cost of living, as is the case in San Diego.

Working in the coalition's favor is "Making Ends Meet," CPI's annual study of the cost of living in San Diego-"Living and working in San Diego has never been more expensive..." is the study's ominous cover blurb. Released in late March, the study found that a family of three-two adults and one school-age child-would need to earn $37,870 a year to cover basic needs. That means both adults would need to earn at least $9.10 an hour at a full-time job. For a family of four, both parents would need to bring home at least $2,127 a month or earn an hourly rate of $12.27. Among other itemized costs, the study assumes that that family of four could cover housing needs, including utilities, for $1,408 a month. The family of three would need to budget $1,012 each month to cover rent or mortgage and utilities.

While the humanitarian argument for a living wage is self-evident, it's the fiscal and economic side of the issue that gets tricky. Because living wage laws apply only to employees whose income is funded by local tax dollars, taxpayers and the elected officials who decide how their money is spent look at the immediate effects wage increases might have on the local economy. Councilmember Brian Maienschein, who says he's not yet taken a position on living wage but promises to "remain open-minded," checked off the list of common arguments against a living wage.

"It would increase the cost of doing projects," he said. "It would increase the cost of doing business. It would lead to businesses potentially leaving San Diego. It would lead to the loss of jobs."

These arguments are salient in light of California's budget crisis and its impact on San Diego. But the timing issue doesn't sway Councilmember Toni Atkins. "When is the right time?" she asked. "The cost of living is so high, anytime is the right time."

It appears there are at least five strong votes in favor of the living wage concept on the City Council (please see sidebar).

Baltimore, the first city to pass a living wage ordinance, back in 1994-and often held up as the living wage standard bearer-released a five-year follow-up study that found that increased wages had no detrimental effects on the city's economy. The five-year increase in contract costs jumped a slight 1.2 percent-less than the rate of inflation. While the Baltimore living wage ordinance applied only to about 1,500 low-wage city workers who had previously been earning below-poverty-level wages, qualitatively the study found that those workers felt an increased sense of worthiness and self-reliance.

CPI Director Donald Cohen put it this way: "Our tax dollars are funding these jobs and creating poverty. People have to rely on publicly funded services, so why not have a say over our own tax dollars and get them creating good, quality jobs that can sustain families."

And as far as city contracts go, uniform wages level the playing field, he said. In cities and counties that don't have a living wage law, the low-and often winning contract bids-usually mean inadequate wages for the employees doing the work.

Cohen said he anticipates the healthcare industry will, along with expected union support, be among the most vocal supporters of a living wage in San Diego. Minutes before talking to CityBeat, Cohen had been on the phone with Sharp Healthcare which absorbed $99 million last year for uncompensated care. "It's not because of poor people," Cohen said. "It's because employers don't provide healthcare [coverage]."

CPI analysts estimate that a living wage will affect roughly 3,000 San Diego workers, whose additional money, Karr says, will likely go back into the local economy. "The savings rates for people at these income levels is virtually zero," he said. Folks benefiting from a living wage will spend that money on basic necessities that they might not have been able to afford before.


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