Public policy

By Kelly Davis

A righty and two lefties spar over wages

A little more than a dozen San Diegans began their Labor Day weekend listening to a feisty fiscal conservative and two social activists spar over whether their city should be obligated to pay its workers a livable wage.

Scott Barnett, former head of the San Diego Taxpayers Association and the Lincoln Club—and who's currently heading the Republicans Against the Recall movement—was the willing victim Friday evening, going up against Paul Karr, spokesperson for the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), a pro-labor think tank, and Erica Bayles, an organizer with the San Diego Living Wage Coalition. The debate went down at the Joyce Beers Center in Hillcrest in front of an audience that showed up for the San Diego Action Network's monthly issues forums.

CPI has spent the past three years organizing support for a citywide living wage law that would mandate all businesses and organizations that get money from the city, either through contracts or subsidies, to pay their workers $11.95 an hour with health benefits or $14.48 an hour if benefits aren't included. Workers employed at city-owned complexes, such as Qualcomm Stadium and the Convention Center, would also be entitled to the higher pay rate.

CPI determined that those hourly rates-well above the $6.75 federal minimum wage-would allow an individual to cover basic needs such as housing, food, transportation and medical insurance. CPI estimates that 2,000 workers—a majority of whom fill the service-sector jobs for which the city contracts out to save money (janitors, landscapers, security guards)—would benefit from the higher wages.

This month, the City Council's Rules Committee is expected to take a first look at a draft of the ordinance before passing it on to the full council for a final vote. An estimated 109 cities already have some sort of living wage ordinance in place and another 75 are currently considering adopting a living-wage law.

Karr and Bayles built their argument around what they said is empirical proof that living wage laws have proven their mettle in other cities—Boston, New York and San Francisco included. Baltimore, the first city in the nation to adopt a living wage, recently issued a study that showed higher wages for city workers had no adverse affect on the city budget and, in fact, resulted in greater productivity and a lower turnover rate among workers. Bayles and Karr also argued that better wages result in decreased reliance on social services.

Bayles argued that taxpayer money shouldn't be spent on supporting poverty-wage jobs.

Barnett, meanwhile, was skeptical, arguing that despite Baltimore's findings (studies are overly subjective, he insisted), higher wages for contract work would inevitably increase costs for a city that's already financially strapped. He encouraged CPI to cast a critical eye on the city's fiscal incompetence and poor contract-negotiation skills—he cited the city's weakness when it comes to dealing with sports teams as an example—and how these problems contribute to San Diego's high cost of living. As it stand now, the city, he said, "waste[s] tax dollars tremendously.

"Literally go through the budget," he encouraged the audience. "We have too many employees doing things that I don't think are basic services, too many things benefiting city bureaucracy."

For example, Barnett cited 19 city employees hired to round up outstanding warrants for traffic tickets. The city could have contracted out to a collection agency to reduce overhead, he said. "In some cases, they're hiring employees where they don't have to."

Enacting a living wage without addressing the city's fiscal mismanagement might end up putting a strain on city services, he pointed out. "Is that the best way of using public dollars to solve the [wage] problem?" Barnett asked. "This should be discussed [instead of] wasting time discussing stadiums."

The one issue on which all three agreed was low-income workers' lack of access to healthcare. Barnett pointed to the $9 million in tobacco settlement money that the city gets each year from the states' multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against tobacco companies. The money should go towards healthcare costs, he said, but instead is being spent on things such as after-school programs and financing the new downtown library. The $9 million, he said, could probably insure the estimated 200,000 uninsured workers in the city of San Diego.

Karr wondered why the city couldn't do both—enact a living wage and work towards reallocating tobacco funds to cover healthcare costs. "We're talking about family budgets, about whether or not people live in poverty, about whether or not they can provide adequately for their children.

"What we're trying to do is encourage good employment practices," he said. "If everyone got healthcare that's one thing... [but] the employers who choose to take our tax dollars, if they're going to use our tax dollars, they're going to use them responsibly."