Showdown Looms over Living Wage Bill

Linda Archer, 58, spent years working double shifts as a nurse’s assistant at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital while she was a single mother.

But since the recession hit, finding a job has not been easy. Archer moved into her mother’s one-bedroom apartment to make ends meet, and after looking for a year for clerical work and doing temporary jobs, she finally found a permanent position as an hourly employee at McDonald’s, where she earns $7.45 an hour.

“That’s all I could find, I can’t find anything else. It was the bottom — rock bottom,” she said.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn speaks at a press conference. The fate of the living wage bill rests largely on her shoulders. Flickr/Ennui Poet.

Archer has an associate’s degree from Elizabeth Seton College, now a part of Iona College. She wants to go back to school but can’t afford it — there aren’t scholarships for older people, she said, so she would have to take out student loans.

It is people like Archer — and thousands of other New Yorkers with similar stories — that some City Council members and activists say would benefit from the Fair Wages for New Yorkers bill, now awaiting City Council action. A hearing on it will be held Tuesday, Nov. 22.

As Occupy Wall Street captures headlines and supporters, many paint the Living Wage bill as a legislative step toward helping the “99 percent.” The bill falls short of some protesters’ demands for a $20 dollar minimum wage, but supporters say it is a crucial — and realistic — step to help working New Yorkers rise above the poverty line.

What a ‘Living Wage” Would Do

Most commonly called the Living Wage bill, the legislation would raise the hourly wages for jobs created in city-funded developments to $10 an hour with health benefits or $11.50 an hour without them. Studies show that that is what New Yorkers need to earn to stay out of poverty. The current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, they say, forces many people who work to live in poverty.

Archer says she generally works about 30 hours a week — she can-t find a full-time position — and make $223 a week before taxes. That’s just $10,728 a year. Under the living wage bill, if Archer found a job working the same number of hours in a development that is subsidized by the city and therefore covered under the bill, she would make an extra $92 a week for a total of $15,120 per year before taxes.

The requirement only would apply to future jobs in developments, such as shopping malls, that received a tax break or other subsidy from the city. Supporters say city tax dollars should go toward creating good jobs, not ones that keep people in poverty. Critics say the bill would kill jobs before they are even created.

The bill’s current incarnation — after a round of business-interest supported amendments — now affects developments for the first 10 years after they receive any subsidies, and excludes manufacturing firms, companies with less than $5 million in annual revenue and those that receive less than $1 million in city subsidies.

Most say they can’t predict how many jobs such a bill would affect — estimates range from a few thousand jobs to many, many more.

The Lobbying Frenzy

The bill promises to be the focus of much debate at City Hall.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) has led the union lobbying efforts on behalf of the bill. Over the past year, the union has pushed the “argument that this is a pragmatic, common sense bill that will help working people, our local economy, and businesses in the city,” Dan Morris, a spokesman for the union said. He said the union has arranged for civil rights leaders like Rev. Al Sharpton, other clergy, and constituents to lobby City Council leaders. A massive protest is planned for Monday, the day before the council hearing, at the Riverside Church.

The Manhattan Chamber of Commerce is leading the opposing lobbying efforts, bringing small business owners to meet with council members to discuss the effects of such a bill. The Real Estate Board of New York sent a letter to City Hall last week, charging that the bill would limit affordable housing and hurt efforts to expand and create businesses in underserved neighborhoods. The letter, organizers say, is the first part of a more aggressive campaign to fight the living wage bill.

Both sides have cited wildly conflicting studies on the effects of the bill in New York City. Amid all the arguments, though, the fate of the measure rests largely on the shoulder of one person: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Quinn’s Quandary

As the bill awaits action, people on both sides are waiting to see what Quinn will do.

“If she supports it, it’ll pass, and I believe it’ll even override the mayor’s veto,” said Councilmember Oliver Koppell, who is the bill’s lead sponsor. “If she doesn’t, it won’t.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as Koppell noted, is expected to veto the bill if it passes; he has long opposed living wage legislation and recently compared it to communism. The bill currently has 30 out of 51 City Council members signed on as co-sponsors. Nothing in City Council, though, comes to a vote without Quinn’s backing.

For Quinn, a likely mayoral candidate in 2012, the vote is a tricky one. To kill the bill by not calling it to a vote, as she did last year with a bill requiring that workers in the city get some paid sick days, would lose her supporters on the left; to support it would cost her votes from business owners. A former housing activist, Quinn has widely been seen as generally siding with Bloomberg in an effort to get his support and that of the business community. But she has occasionally strayed from that – supporting measures to rein in city contracts, for example, or lashing out at the city’s plan to tighten eligibility for homeless shelters.

So far Quinn is not tipping her hand. Pressed repeatedly on the issue at a press conference earlier this fall, she refused to comment on the specific legislation or the general concept of a living wage.

Bad for Business?

While supporters of the living wage say they have tried to address some of business’ concerns – and perhaps win Quinn’s support — business owners still vehemently oppose the bill.

“It’s as bad as bad can possibly be,” said Robert Schwartz, 70, who owns three shoe stores in Manhattan and Queens with 49 employees overall and salaries that range from minimum wage to $100,000 a year. Only four or five people make less than the living wage in Schwartz’s stores — Eneslow, The Foot Comfort Center — but he said that this bill will still hurt his bottom line and his ability to expand.

“Nobody else has the level of taxes and cost of doing business we have here. There are fees to put signs up, you’ve got to pay to take care of the disabled,” he said. “If there’s going to be one more layer of costs we’re going to have to add on, the chance that we’re going to open up new stores is virtually non-existent.”

Read the full post at Gotham Gazette.

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