Council should take the lead on living-wage standards

In response to "The Gospel According to Jerry" commentary in Xpress' March 10 issue, I'd like to shed a little more light on the critical issue of living wages.

In 2006, Asheville City Council adopted a policy to pay all city employees a living wage, which, at the time, was $10.86 per hour. This living wage ordinance sets an example for all Asheville employers to take the initiative to raise their wage standards and pay their workers a wage that at least allows them to meet their basic needs. There is growing awareness of the fact that working full time for a minimum wage does not keep a worker above the official poverty line. According to The Working Poor Families Project, 29.6 percent of working families in North Carolina held jobs in occupations paying below the poverty line in 2008.

The city's living wage ordinance is a step in the right direction, although the wage should be increased to $11.35 per hour to reflect the 2010 living wage. But what about those government jobs that are contracted out to the private sector? If Council does not adopt a living wage ordinance that covers contract employees, then it is effectively outsourcing city labor to businesses with lower wage standards.

Regarding Jerry's complaint about the vinegar in this recipe: In 2006, the Economic Policy Institute conducted an extensive economic-impact study of local living wages and found that "living wage laws have small to moderate effects on municipal budgets." (You can find the study at www.epi.org/publications/entry/bp170). A detailed survey of 20 cities found that the actual budgetary effect of living-wage laws had been consistently overestimated by city administrators; actual costs tended to be less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the overall budget. Multiple studies have shown that the bidding for municipal contracts remained competitive or even improved as a result of living-wage ordinances. Studies have also measured significant benefits to both the businesses and the workers affected by living-wage ordinances. Pretty sweet vinegar, if you ask me.

It is up to City Council to make the call: Will it lead the business community in combating poverty wages and building a just local economy or continue outsourcing jobs to businesses that perpetuate the problems faced by low-wage workers. The argument for living wages is based on economic logic and moral imperative, and municipal policy should be as well.

— Sophia Hatz
Volunteer, Just Economics of WNC
Asheville

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5 thoughts on “Council should take the lead on living-wage standards

  1. I’ve been engaged in informal talks with experts and a couple of other Council members and brought this matter up for discussion at the most recent Council Finance Committee meeting. I expect to bring the matter to Council for consideration in the not distant future.

    Specifically, I believe that service work contracts such as janitorial and grounds maintenance should include a living wage mandate. These are jobs that could just as easily be staff positions, and in my view our relegating them to lower paid workers via contract is an abrogation of the City’s certification as a living wage employer.

  2. artart

    The city has a responsibility to the taxpayers who support it’s endeavors, to be fiscally responsible and to not overpay for any services or products it acquires on behalf of the taxpayers. Most individuals will opt to buy the best products or services they can afford at the lowest price. The city, acting on behalf of the taxpayers who support it, is being completely irresponsible if they are overpaying for services.
    If people in the workforce chose not to acquire the skills that allow them to get “a living wage” for their labor, it is not the responsiblity of the taxpayers to make up for their lack of more marketable skills. Cecil, you are using taxpayer dollars to fund your personal social agenda.

  3. Artart, payment of a living wage is hardly my personal agenda. The City of Asheville voluntarily became a Certified Living Wage employer a couple of years ago. It is City policy. What I’m suggesting is that we not engage in pretense by using contractors to do work that might normally be done by employees. To me that is playing with semantics.

    I agree we shouldn’t “overpay” for anything, but if the City uses tax money to bid down the value of labor in Asheville, the government is working against the best interests of its citizens.

  4. artart

    Cecil, I am glad to see that you agree the city should not have to overpay…that is pay more than necessary…..to obtain equal goods or services. The living wage is a bogus concept. Inarguably people clearly deserve to be paid for their productivity and value added for the jobs they do rather than some analysts concept of how much they need to be paid to live a certain lifestyle. That is akin to me demanding say, $200,000 for my home when the market for comparable homes is $150,000, when I say I “need $200,000.” It is choice to sell or not sell my house just as it is someone else’s free choice whether to work for a certain wage or not. I can upgrade the value of my home a number of different ways to make it more valuable, just as a person can upgrade their value in the marketplace to earn a better living. As far as the city “bidding down” labor that is not a direct hire for the city…well that seems like a real stretch to again pursue agendas and then stick taxpayers with the bill. This particular area has a great oversupply of labor and when there is an oversupply, one employer…..like the city….overpaying salaries..is not going to impact the salaries of large numbers of people in this metro area. The moral aspect of paying so-called living wages is admirable, but when it is taxpayer money that is being used to overpay for labor, the goverment is being irresponsible. I often wonder, why as a homeowner outside the city, friends with similarly valued homes inside the city are paying between 2 1/2 to 3 times the taxes I pay? Can it partially be due to a lack of diligence of the elected leaders to assure that when taxpayers best interests come in conflict with various feel-good social agendas that the agendas trump the interest of those who really pay the bills?

  5. I agree that workers should be paid according to their productivity and value added. Maybe then wages should rise according to worker productivity? Sadly, the productivity/wage gap continues to climb to record highs. High levels of unemployment also put downward pressure workers’ bargaining power, and their ability to claim a fair share of productivity rates.

    The concept of a Living Wage is based on an analysis of costs because a Living Wage is simply the amount a full-time worker needs to cover basic necessities without outside assistance. The City’s choice to pay city employees (and hopefully, contractors) a Living Wage is not overpaying, rather just paying a true minimum. Beyond this minimum, productivity-related raises would be welcome!

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