Living wage hearing draws a thousand

SACRAMENTO – Over 1,000 people supporting a living wage ordinance here crowded into a marathon City Council hearing that lasted past midnight, Jan. 9. Another hearing is scheduled for March 4.

The living wage ordinance introduced by Council members Dave Jones and Lauren Hammond would require businesses that get contracts or subsidies from the city of over $25,000 to pay their employees a minimum of $10 an hour with health benefits or $12 without health benefits, and to remain neutral if the employees vote to join a union.

At this “workshop” hearing, two-thirds of the speaking time was given to opponents of the measure, while the remaining time went to representatives of the broad-based Sacramento Living Wage Coalition that spoke for the majority of the audience.

Michael Medema, Sacramento City Projects Director, introduced a spokeswoman for the Economic Research Association (ERA), a consulting firm hired by the city.

The city staff report, along with the ERA report, presented a hodgepodge of objections and alternative proposals to the Living Wage Ordinance.

These ranged from impossibly high estimates of the costs to the city and local businesses to proposing that the city establish an office to help “the working poor” take advantage of public assistance programs such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), Medicare, food stamps and earned income tax credit.

They also suggested that a living wage in Sacramento should be $1.50 an hour lower than the proposal, and pointed out that 474 full-time equivalent city employees earn less than a living wage.

Councilpeople Jones and Sandy Sheedy repeatedly questioned the methodology and figures presented by ERA and the city staff and pointed out that the public assistance programs mentioned are under increasing threat of cutbacks, and do not lift workers out of poverty.

Also opposing the ordinance were representatives of the Sacramento Chambers of Commerce, who said that local small businesses could not afford to pay a living wage.

During the time allotted to the Sacramento Living Wage Coalition, speakers representing labor unions, low-income workers, research institutions, community organizations, the faith community and even local business owners criticized the ERA study and urged the Council to “do the right thing” by making sure that city tax money does not go to companies that pay poverty wages.

“All we need is a chance to live like decent human beings,” said Chris Jones, president of Sacramento Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). “You can’t pay your rent or gas bill with Medicare or food stamps.”

Jen Kern, of ACORN’s National Living Wage Center, told the council that living wage ordinances have cost very little to other cities. She cited a cost increase in Oakland of 2 percent and of 1.5 percent in Baltimore.

“No living wage ordinance has been repealed,” she said, and several cities have expanded their ordinances to cover more workers and mandate higher wages.

Several speakers pointed out that public assistance subsidies allow companies to pay their employees lower wages and amount to corporate welfare. Others said that higher wages benefit small businesses because more workers could afford to patronize them.

When the hearing was over, it appeared that four of the nine council people supported the measure, two were opposed and two undecided. One councilman, Ray Tretheway, had recused himself because his business, the Tree Conservancy, gets money from the City of Sacramento.

The author can be reached at ncalview@igc.org