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New Haven, CT: On 2nd Try, Living Wage Gets The OK
New Haven Independent
Uma Ramiah

April 14, 2011
View the Original Article

It’s back, but you might not recognize it: A bill meant to raise minimum wage on city-contracted jobs has moved forward, in a scaled-down form.

The amended Living Wage Ordinance passed out of a joint aldermanic Finance-Legislation Committee hearing Wednesday night, sending the bill to a vote by the full Board of Aldermen.

The bill in an original, more ambitious form met with widespread resistance last year because of the city’s budget woes. So cosponsors Aldermen Mike Jones and Matt Smith came back Wednesday night with a version covering fewer workers.

“I understand and recognize that these are tough times for the city of New Haven and its residents,” Jones told the joint committee. “But these are also tough times for the people who serve the city as cafeteria workers, custodians and those who serve in other capacities.”

The Living Wage Ordinance, if passed in its newly amended form, would see a minimum wage increase from $12.50 to $14.67 an hour on jobs paid for by city government contract, bringing it up to 133 percent of the current poverty line.

That’s what was proposed in 2010 for a wide swath of workers on private contracts with the city, to the outcry of business advocates and from the mayor.

The new version exempts city-funded jobs at non-profit organizations, for example. It also narrows the scope of employees covered: They must work 12 months out of the year, exempting school workers, a key target of the original legislation, and at least 16 hours a week. And if they’re working for the city under contract, that contract must exceed $100,000.

“While the proposal has been modified into its current form and lacks some of the scope originally intended, the current proposal still receives my strongest support,” New Haven State Rep. Roland Lemar, a former alderman and co-author of previous versions of the bill, testified to the joint committee.

“It’s a very simple concept: the City of New Haven should not be in the business of subsidizing poverty,” he said. “We should protect these workers as fiercely as we protect all those that are working on behalf of our city.”

According to mayoral aide Rebecca Bombero, the ordinance could cost the city up to $187,005 a year—but that remains unclear. There’s a sticking point: The bill as currently written doesn’t apply to the Board of Education (BOE). And on top of that, aldermen weren’t sure if they have the authority to impose the wage on the BOE. Most of the cost would be for Board of Ed employees.

The joint committee quickly fixed the language issue: they voted to amend the definition of “city” in the bill to limit its scope to branches of government paid for by the general fund. That excludes the BOE.

“This was always meant to include the Board of Education,” said Hill Alderman Jorge Perez.

“There’s a long and elaborate litigation history regarding your board and the Board of Education,” Assistant Corporation Counsel Kathleen Foster told the aldermen. “The general principle is that under state law, the only controls a local legislative body has over the Board of Education is to give [overall annual budget] dollar amounts to the board,and to oversee capital investments.”

BOE legally controls the decision of how to spend the overall money allotted to it. Foster was given less than an hour’s notice to prepare for her testimony on the matter Wednesday night; the committee decided to give her time to draw up a formal opinion.

“Then we’ll meet with the makers of the bill and counsel and determine how to move forward,” Perez said.

Without the Board of Education, it’s estimated that the Living Wage Ordinance will cost the city $11,601 per year, according to Bombero’s research. However the increased wage costs could be passed on to the city in the form of higher new bids, which would drive that estimate higher in turn.

“We understand that the fear is that for companies, living wage isn’t a draw,” said East Rock Alderman Smith. “But that’s is clearly a blueprint for a race to a bottom. We might create some jobs, but it’s just as likely to ruin our community.”

The committed passed the ordinance unanimously.