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Bill Requiring Higher Wages Puts Council Leader on the Spot
New York Times
Kate Taylor

October 3, 2011
View the Original Article

Supporters of a faltering bill that would require companies in city-subsidized projects to pay higher wages plan a new push to revive the measure, setting up an unwelcome choice for Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, who could anger either labor leaders or business interests by her action on the legislation.

The so-called living wage proposal has the support of 30 of the 51 members of the Council, but is opposed by business leaders and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration.

Supporters say they are prepared to compromise and will propose narrowing the number of companies affected by the legislation, to try to protect manufacturers and small businesses.

“We’ve tried very hard here to make something that will not affect a large number of people who were concerned about it,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Councilman G. Oliver Koppell of the Bronx. The bill, which Mr. Koppell and another council member from the Bronx, Annabel Palma, introduced last year, is modeled on measures that have been enacted around the country. It would require that employees working in city-subsidized projects be paid $10 an hour with benefits, or $11.50 an hour without benefits. Minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Supporters say that recently released poverty statistics, which showed one in five New Yorkers living below the poverty line, provide evidence that the bill is needed. The city “has not done enough to advance policies that will strengthen working families,” Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn said.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation has opposed the proposal, citing a $1 million study it commissioned, which found that a wage requirement would hurt employment in the city. Advocates criticized the study as biased, and a discussion of it during a Council hearing in May became heated.

But the sponsors of the measure say that in response to the critique, they will introduce an amended version that would exclude manufacturing businesses, and companies with less than $5 million in annual revenue or under $1 million in city subsidies. The amended measure would also require companies to pay the “living wage” for only 10 years — down from 30 in the original proposal — or for as long as the building in which the company was located received a city subsidy.

A mayoral spokeswoman, Julie Wood, said, “We haven’t seen the bill, but our administration is working to create jobs, not eliminate them by imposing new costs on employers and creating challenges to private investment.”

Mr. Bloomberg is still frustrated by the demise, in 2009, of a plan to develop the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx into a shopping mall, after a contentious debate over whether to require that tenants of the development pay at least $10 per hour to employees in exchange for the developer’s receiving millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives.

Ms. Quinn, who is expected to run for mayor in 2013, can kill a bill by not bringing it to a vote. Last year, she shelved a bill that would have required employers to provide paid sick days to their workers; it had the support of a veto-proof majority in the Council but was opposed by business interests.

On Friday, Ms. Quinn’s spokesman, Jamie McShane, said the speaker’s office had not yet received a bill with the proposed amendments and would review it when it did.

Ms. Quinn has courted the business community but also has a long history as a liberal activist, and her handling of the living wage issue is being closely watched by a variety of interest groups. Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has strongly advocated for the bill, declined to say that opposing the bill would hurt Ms. Quinn’s electoral chances.

But he said: “I think that anyone who wants to hold public office in New York has to be concerned about what’s happening to so many New Yorkers who are struggling to survive. It is the key question that every candidate for public office is going to have to address: How do we prevent New York from becoming a city of the well-to-do and the have-nots, with no middle class in between?”

Kathryn S. Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group, said the advocates deserved credit for trying to make the bill less burdensome. But she said, “Income disparity in America needs to be addressed, but piecemeal actions like a local living wage bill, which will benefit relatively few workers, are likely to make conditions even worse for the vast majority of job seekers.”