New York Times
A 27-year-old with a broad smile and vibrant wells for eyes, Ms. Ortiz lives in a South Bronx apartment with two young children and her retired mother. How to make pay stretch is a weekly bookkeeping nightmare.
“The most money I ever made as assistant manager of the gift shop at the Statue of Liberty was $9.25 an hour,” she recalled. “Every check goes to something: two weeks to rent, one week to kids’ clothes.”
A few weeks ago, her throat felt rubbed raw. She had dropped her insurance and could not afford a doctor. “It’s disgusting to choose between health and enough money to live,” she said.
Some might object that I’ve filled this draft of misery too close to the brim. As our unemployment rate bumps near double figures, Ms. Ortiz at least has a job. The New York State minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
And if, as some Council members propose, the city requires employers in projects that receive deep public subsidies to pay at least $10 an hour, plus benefits (or $11.50 with no benefits), might not some developers close their checkbooks rather than build?
Should policy be held hostage to tales of misery?
The mayor’s take is not subtle. Mention the living wage and he talks as if he’s just received a report that Bolsheviks have made a move on the Bronx.
Across the City Hall rotunda, the Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, offers a more nimble take. But her past as a left-wing activist and her mayoral ambitions as a centrist liberal are caught in a spider’s web on this one.
Ms. Quinn could render the proposal comatose. A year ago her members tried to push through a living wage in the Bronx and to mandate a few sick days for workers. She ensured each effort ended up baled, tied and set by the BQE for early sanitation pickup.
But the Occupy Wall Street crowd, dismissed early on as manifesto-less urchins, have fired the popular imagination. Labor unions march through the streets. Attention turns to the canyon separating the city’s rich and poor.
Unionists, black ministers and Working Families Party activists threaten mayhem in the 2013 election if Ms. Quinn does not bend.
Ms. Quinn does indignant well; she insists no whiff of politics will influence her. She also notes, reasonably, that the previous living wage proposal was far too vague.
“Obviously there is an attempt to narrow the bill, and that is to balance the two sides of the coin,” she says. “We are trying to keep people working in decent jobs. I appreciate everyone’s attempts to balance these goals.”
The speaker’s appreciation most likely is tempered by her fervent desire to see this issue disappear altogether.
The mayor is hard to figure. Over the summer he personally seeded a multimillion-dollar initiative to help impoverished black and Latino men. His studies illuminate that millions of the poor (30 percent of city children live in poverty) work, and yet cannot crawl above the poverty line.
Nor is a living wage a radical thought.
Cities from Boston to Los Angeles have employed the living wage on a fairly broad scale. (The Council proposal is a penny tossed in a municipal sea, most likely affecting a few thousand workers.)
A year ago, the mayor, who can be promiscuous with consultant dollars, paid $1 million to Charles River Associates to study living-wage proposals. Aides promised no foregone conclusions.
That beggared belief. The two principal researchers for Charles River were longtime opponents not just of the living wage, but also of the minimum wage itself. The shock was not mortal when they concluded a living wage would be a poisoned chalice.
I called Peter Dreier, who once was a deputy mayor in Boston, where he molded a living wage still in effect. “It is not going to kill New York’s golden goose,” he said. “It is not even going to ruffle the goose’s feathers.”
This debate holds no fascination for the mayor. “The last time people tried to set rates basically was in the Soviet Union, and that didn’t work out very well,” he said last week.
I tried out the mayor’s reasoning on Ms. Ortiz, who dropped her class at Lehman College because of a lack of money. When I got to the Soviet Union, she looked at me as if I had sucked on a crack pipe.
“He compared a wage I can survive on to the Soviet Union?” she said. “That’s ridiculous.”