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Living Wage Act Inspires Fierce Debate
The Uptowner
Jacqueline Guzman

December 16, 2011
View the Original Article

On a cold afternoon, a crowd of Living Wage NYC Coalition supporters lined up outside the downtown Emigrant Savings Bank Building, picket signs in hand, to enter a City Council hearing on the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.

Group leaders distributed blue T-shirts with the organization’s logo to demonstrators from around the city, including Washington Heights and Harlem; they wore them as they chanted: “What do we want? Living Wages! When do we want it? Now!”

If passed, the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act — also called the “Living Wage Act” — would require large city-subsidized developers to pay employees a minimum hourly wage of $10 with benefits or $11.50 without. The amount would increase yearly, to match inflation.

The current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but some tip-based service workers can legally make less.

An earlier version of the bill, introduced by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. in May 2010, was revamped after some council members expressed concern about the broad range of businesses the law would affect.

The revised proposal applies only to new development projects receiving more than $1 million of financial assistance from the city or the Economic Development Corp. It wouldn’t apply to prior projects, unless their agreements change or are renewed.

If the law passes, mom-and-pop businesses with less than $5 million in revenues would be exempt, along with non-profits, manufacturers and affordable housing projects. Despite those changes, uptown officials and residents express mixed feelings about how the bill might affect their neighborhoods.

For proponents like longtime Harlem resident and activist Queen Mother Delois Blakely, the message is clear: residents need higher wages to sustain an adequate quality of life.

At the public hearing, Blakely sat amid the sea of blue T-shirts and listened to heated debate among council members. Most spectators left after almost four hours, but Blakely waited patiently to testify.

“This is a human rights issue, as far as I’m concerned,” Blakely said after the meeting, pointing to the rising cost of living. “If we cannot feed ourselves, clothe ourselves or have shelter for ourselves, then something is wrong with the equation,” she said, “especially for working class people.”

In upper Manhattan, the bill has received support from some elected officials, organizations and religious congregations. Community Board 12 members from Washington Heights and Inwood recently passed resolutions formally backing the legislation. Council Members Robert Jackson, Ydanis Rodriguez and Melissa Mark-Viverito have publicly announced their support.

Council Member Jackson determined that a full-time minimum wage employee earns just $15,080 a year; he challenged the bill’s opponents to contemplate supporting a family on such a meager salary.

“Do you think that is too much money to earn under the circumstances that the city would give developers subsidies and the high cost of living in New York City?” he asked panelists. Most workers end up having to work overtime, he added.

Opponents, including the Bloomberg administration, fear developers will be reluctant to undertake new projects in the city if they have to pay employees more.

Days after the public hearing, Central Harlem Council Member Inez Dickens officially withdrew her support for the Living Wage Act in an Op-Ed published in the New York Daily News. In the article, Dickens expressed concern for small businesses in her district, though the Act specifically excludes those with less than $5 million in revenues.

“If we are going to pull ourselves out of this recession, we must nurture the creation of new small businesses and encourage them to hire people here as well,” Dickens wrote. “If they are forced to pay this higher wage, they most certainly will choose not to come.”

Another major concern is that the law might actually hurt the people it’s intended to help, because it would result in fewer full-time jobs.

“Fair Wages may have unintended consequences for employees due to low levels of income allowed for various programs,” Henry Calderon, president of the East Harlem Chamber of Commerce, said via email. “Business owners will always hire the minimum employees needed to maintain their margins, no matter what the economy is doing. If the hourly wage goes up, then the number of employees who are part time, goes up as well.”

Individual opinions on the Living Wage Act are just as varied. Harlem resident Will Reese, a 60-year-old teacher, said the quality of life issue for New Yorkers goes beyond wages. “There are people here who are exploited all over,” he said. Neither for nor against the act, he felt the entire economic system needed an overhaul. Living wage “doesn’t solve the problem and it doesn’t change anything,” Reese concluded.

Travis Buckley, 21, has supported himself with minimum wage jobs before, but it hasn’t been easy. “It’s practically impossible to pay rent, buy food and pay other bills with minimum wage,” said Buckley, now a manager at a major video game store in East Harlem. “The cost of living goes up every year,” he added. “We need to compensate for that.”

“I make $14 an hour and can barely live off that,” said Alicia Harrington, a 24-year-old mover in Harlem. Living on half that amount is unimaginable, she added. She supports a wage increase but fears it may result in fewer jobs. “It’s a win-lose situation,” she said. “The ones who actually get those jobs will win; those who don’t will lose.”

Living Wage ordinance experts have researched that concern extensively. “It’s fairly clear-cut that there is some impact on employment,” said Kristen Monaco, an economist at California State University, Long Beach, “though it may not be particularly large.”

In many cases, the benefits of implementing a living wage outweigh the costs, Monaco concluded. One such benefit is less reliance on public assistance programs like welfare, thus cutting government costs.

Monaco also rebutted the contention that developers would hesitate to bring new business to cities like New York. “We’re talking about major population centers here,” she said, adding that the argument applies more to smaller cities.

Similar living wage policies have already been implemented in more than 15 cities nationwide. San Francisco passed a living wage policy in 2000 and next year will become the first city to top a $10 minimum wage. Los Angeles and Philadelphia have also been successful in setting these policies without affecting local business climates, according to a 2010 study from the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education.

Although the bill has been endorsed by 29 out of 51 City Council members, its outcome remains uncertain. Speaker Christine Quinn, said to be on the fence, has faced public pressure to make a decision, especially since she hopes to succeed Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, support for the Living Wage NYC campaign has gained momentum, said Dan Morris, communications director for the Retail, Warehouse and Department Store Union, which leads the coalition. Two uptown pastors, the Rev. Jesse Williams and the Rev. Michael Walrond Jr., “have been making powerful, moral arguments for living wage,” Morris said, and have drawn support from many Harlem residents.

“We’re doing everything we can to get the bill passed in the new year,” Morris said, adding that campaign organizers are very optimistic. “The debate is over, we’ve basically won.”