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Living Wage Boost Sparks Debate
New Haven Independent
Allan Appel

September 1, 2010
View the Original Article


City Hall dispatched department heads and teamed with business at a passionate five-and-a-half-hour hearing with dire new warnings to try to stop a proposed expansion of the New Haven’s living wage law, predicting skyrocketing costs and unforeseen lawsuits.

Angered proponents joined with unions to present experts of their own, blast scare tactics, and argue for enabling government’s outsourced workers to afford to feed their families or get sick.

The confrontation took place at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s Finance and Legislation Committee. The committee heard a proposal to expand the city’s 1997 living wage law were debated among a packed chamber of labor activists, mainly supporters, and a handful of area business reps, generally opposed.

The debate pitted three independent aldermen against the DeStefano administration over the question of what the city can afford, and how to treat workers fairly, in a recession.

The debate hearing ran from 6 p.m. to 11:29 p.m. The committee took no action; it will hold a second hearing.

The city’s current living wage law requires an hourly rate of $12 (far above the national and state minimum wages) and covers people who don’t work as city employees but rather for a limited number of the city’s direct contractors. Originally proposed by the late Alderman Phil Voigt, the law aims to ensure that people doing government work but technically working for private firms hired by City Hall avoid living in poverty.

Yale Alderman Mike Jones, East Rock’s Roland Lemar, and West Rock’s Darnell Goldson have been working for months on a far more expanded set of amendments. Click here for an article on that.

On Tuesday night they formally offered these changes:

• An hourly raise of the rate to $14.67, which comes to about $30,000 a year, so employees can afford health insurance; or less than that per hour but with employer-paid health insurance. The rate is now $12 per hour.

• A significant expansion to include all employees who work on projects funded by any part of the city government or any projects that receive city assistance or grants. This means Board of Ed sub contractors, Tweed New Haven, the port, and many non-profits. (The law currently covers only a small set of workers.)

• Hiring preference to students or graduates of New Haven public schools or Gateway Community College or participants in registered career centers (a back-door way to promote local hiring.) Too Costly?

The DeStefano administration countered that the city can’t afford more than a rise to $12.50 an hour, period.

Mayoral Chief of Staff Sean Matteson, who worked for a union before coming to City Hall, declared the aldermen’s proposal as well-intended but liable to cost $13 to $30 million a year more, including possible legal costs and unintended consequences.

“You have a wonderful piece of legislation but becomes bogged down in substantive legal costs to defend it,” said city Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden.

Specifically BOA president Carl Goldfield asked what the city’s liability would be if an employee in an effected company sues over the quality of the health care he or she receives. “We have to be careful that we don’t get bit,” Goldfield said.

And city youth policy chief Che Dawson predicted that the cost of his Youth at Work program would zoom from $1 million to $3 million because the expanded law would cover the teens he hires. That would mean he’d have to cut the roster of hired teens from 1,100 to 700, he claimed. New Figures? Scare Tactics?

The city suddenly changed its tunes and concocted wild new, questionable costs, countered the expansion’s proponents.

“This new multimillion dollar cost is a revelation to us,” said Alderman Lemar. “We figured [it all] at $106,000.”

Jones produced a document showing that a city analysis was indeed that far lower number as of two months ago.

“This task is new to us,”responded city Purchasing Agent Mike Fumiatti. He said the current 500 to 600 contracts that are part of the current living wage law are monitored by the Commission on Equal Opportunitie’s office, whose chief, Nichole Jefferson, has five employees.

“The current ordinance has two people only,” he said. “These are administrative issues to address as we go forward.”

“We’ll look forward to working with you to find the right place to house this,” Lemar responded.

Luis Cotto, minority leader of the Common Council in Hartford, where an expanded living wage law was passed in the spring, testified in favor of New Haven’s proposal.

“I’m here to say that we did it in Hartford and the sky has not fallen,” he declared.

Law professor Michael Wishnie, whose Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale helped to research and craft the legislation, added that six months have passed and there has not been a single law suit brought as a result.

“It is entirely lawful and will not expose the city to liability,” he said.

Cotto had no figures on the law’s financial impact so far.

Business representatives such as Kia Murrell (pictured) of the Hartford-based Connecticut Business and Industry Association cautioned that to compare the Hartford and New Haven laws might be apples and oranges.

She also echoed some of the skeptics of the legislation among the aldermen that the bill, while well meaning, was poorly conceived and essentially anti-business.

“The priority list will be a disincentive for many companies if they feel there’s a quota,” she said.

Hill Aldermen Jorge Perez said if you read the bill carefully, employers have the final choice of employee.

Still Murrell called it a mandate which along with paid health care. She called sick leave a short-sighted one-size-fits-all prescription.

Yale Local 34 member Sarah Saiano (foreground) and other unionists countered.

Describing herself as someone who was part of the fight for the original living wage law, she praised the proposed changes. Her two adult daughters and a son currently live in her home, which is highly mortgaged. She’s on the brink of bankruptcy because in part her kids have not had opportunities for living wage jobs, she said.

East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker called for a list of not-for-profits that would come in under the law’s umbrella. Jones said he’s been asking the city for the list for months, to no avail.

Jacquelyn Wright of Newhallville testified that she works for $11.50 an hour for Marrakesh, a not-for-profit that helps people with disabilities. She said she has a bachelor’s degree and would like to be able to work only one job and spend more time with her 10 year old but she has had to take a second job. A living wage expansion would make a huge difference for people like her, she said. Of concern to the aldermen as well as city bureaucrats was whether a not-for-profit like Marrakesh would become one of the new covered employers under the law. As currently written, the not-for-profits to be covered would be limited to those that receive more than $100,000 of taxpayer money. Also, only those employees working on those grants would be covered.