At a New York City Council hearing held on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, opponents and proponents of the living wage bill sounded off. The hearing came on the heels of a well-attended pro-living wage rally held Monday at Riverside Church in Manhattan.
The bill, called the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, would require developers who receive public subsidies to pay employees $10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 without. It has sharply divided Queens and the rest of the city, and has already been significantly amended to address various concerns.
Twenty-nine City Council members, including four of Queens’ 14, have sponsored the bill, more than the 26 votes required to pass it should it come up for a vote.
Mayor Bloomberg, however, has publicly voiced his opposition to a living wage mandate. It’s unclear whether there is sufficient support for the bill — 34 votes — to override a mayoral veto.
Many agree that Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) holds the key to the bill’s future. Quinn can effectively kill the measure by not bringing it to a vote, or could rally support were she to back it.
In Queens, business leaders by and large oppose to the bill, as they say it will lead to lost jobs and fewer development projects.
“It’s a job killer,” said Jack Friedman, the executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce. “You can’t just force a business to increase its payroll.” Friedman said a business paying $10 or $11.50 an hour would not be able to compete with one paying $7.25, the federal minimum wage.
The bill requires even firms renting space in a project built with $1 million or more in taxpayer dollars to pay their employees the living wage, a major point of contention.
“A grocery store could have to pay more than a grocery store down the street,” said Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), who also opposes the bill’s “massive reporting requirements,” and says that in its current form it would hurt small businesses.
The bill’s supporters argue, however, that a new provision in the measure, requiring only companies that gross more than $5 million a year be subject to the living wage mandate, protects small businesses. Nonprofits would also be exempt from the provision.
“You don’t have to accept public money as a private company or entity,” Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), one of the bill’s sponsors, said. “The amount of businesses that this would apply to is getting smaller and smaller. And the threshold is more than $1 million in subsidies and tax breaks. If you are receiving those benefits and subsidies, it is appropriate to ask more of those [businesses].”
Of the arguments that a living wage could hurt the economy, Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said simply, “I don’t buy them.”
“We’re not talking about huge sums,” Dromm said with reference to the living wage. Citing the Queens Center mall, one of the “highest grossing malls in America,” Dromm noted that “people in the surrounding communities are living in poverty.”
Companies that receive subsidies, like the mall’s builder, “have a moral obligation to pay $10 an hour,” Dromm added. “No one can survive on $7.25 an hour anymore.”
Many opponents of the living wage bill cite the Bronx’s Kingsbridge Armory as a cautionary tale. They say the $300 million development project slated for the armory fell through because a living wage would have been required there.
Dan Morris, a spokesman for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s living wage campaign, countered that it was Bloomberg’s unwillingness to compromise which scuttled the deal, and noted that Related Companies, the developers involved, had actually agreed to living wage standards for a different project in Los Angeles.
“We cannot continue to pump billions of dollars into low-wage jobs,” Morris said. While retail workers, who are frequently employed by stores in government-subsidized projects, would gain from the bill’s passage, Morris said countless employees across the city would benefit.
“This is a fight that’s really bigger than this union,” he said.