Push for higher minimum wages in New Orleans gets plenty of support from local low-wage workers _lowres

Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH-- Mandisa Moore-O'Neal and Rep. Joseph Bouie Jr., D-New Orleans listen as workers discuss a living wage Wednesday at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans.

The push for better citywide wages had plenty of support Wednesday from local fast-food workers, restaurant servers and others in the low-wage hospitality industry.

They addressed a so-called “people’s board” about the struggles of making ends meet in a city with a rising cost of living.

The push, part of a nationwide movement put together by community organizers, drew a crowd of several dozen people — young and old, black and white — to the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in Central City.

The initiative was inspired after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo convened an unelected Wage Board this year that went on to recommend phasing in a $15 minimum wage for the state’s fast-food workers.

The local board included state Rep. Joseph Bouie Jr., D-New Orleans, and former City Councilman Oliver Thomas, who left the council in 2007 after pleading guilty to bribery charges.

Both men listened, occasionally asking questions or jotting down notes. Colorful banners hung on the wall behind them, summing up the group’s overall demands: “Show me $15 and a union.”

Most of the night’s speakers used the two minutes they were provided to discuss trying to afford climbing rents and juggling regular day-to-day costs such as medical bills or groceries while working hospitality jobs that typically pay less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

While the New Orleans area has added tens of thousands of jobs in recent years, most offer wages at or below the area’s average, The Data Center and Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program said in a recent report. The groups noted that four out of every 10 new positions were in hospitality, retail or administrative services, sectors that typically are among the area’s lowest-paying.

Some in the crowd blamed the city’s growing economic disparity for potentially fueling the recent string of armed robberies that touched off a panic in New Orleans, after three well-known Uptown establishments were hit in short order.

“The robberies, the drugs, it’s the side hustle here in New Orleans that is paying our bills. That ain’t right,” said Laura Ekua, 27, who lives in Mid-City and works as a restaurant server.

The session came two months after Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed the city’s “living wage” ordinance, which stipulates that workers employed by companies handling major contract work from the city are paid at least $10.55 an hour starting next year.

Still, given that state law restricts New Orleans from setting a minimum wage for everyone, it’s unclear what, if anything, may come from the wage board’s efforts, beyond serving as an additional advocate for low-wage workers.

After nearly two hours of listening to people, Thomas — a frequent advocate for better job training for low-income workers — said board members would use the input to draft a report that would circulate to local economic development groups to try to win their support for raising low-paying wages.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.