A measure aimed at boosting the pay of low-wage employees of companies that have contracts with the city of New Orleans or that have benefited from city subsidies received overwhelming support from union representatives, fair housing advocacy groups and activists at a public hearing Tuesday evening at City Hall.
The so-called “living wage” ordinance, sponsored by City Councilman Jared Brossett, would require companies that have contracts with the city worth at least $25,000 and those with projects that have received more than $100,000 in grants, tax abatements or subsidies from the city to pay a minimum of $10.10 an hour to the employees who work under those contracts or who work at sites that benefit from public money. Employers also would have to offer those employees at least seven days of paid sick leave a year.
Since introducing the ordinance, Brossett has proposed an amendment to lift the minimum wage to $10.55 an hour.
Brossett said he hopes to eliminate the term “working poor” in New Orleans and to provide economic opportunity to a wider swath of the city’s population.
“This ordinance is not going to be a golden ticket to the middle class,” he said. “But it is another step to expanding the middle class.”
The proposed ordinance comes on the heels of a minimum wage hike for city workers last year and an executive order from President Barack Obama raising the minimum wage for people working on federal service contracts. The minimum wage was raised to $10.10 in both instances.
The statewide minimum wage in Louisiana is $7.25 an hour, or just over $15,000 a year for a full-time employee, for workers who don’t receive tips. A full-time worker covered under Brossett’s revised proposal would earn just under $22,000 a year.
Those who violate the wage rule could have their contracts or city aid suspended or terminated.
Brossett’s measure was approved by the City Council’s Economic Development and Special Projects Committee in May and will be considered by the full council next month. At the May meeting, the measure appeared to have the support of at least five of the council’s seven members.
Brossett’s office scheduled Tuesday’s public forum, during which no official action was taken. Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey joined Brossett for the full meeting. Council members LaToya Cantrell and Jason Williams made brief appearances to express support for the measure.
The proposal drew mostly support from the roughly two dozen residents in attendance.
“One in three renters in this city are paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent, which leaves very little else for education, transportation and food,” said Monika Gerhart-Hambrick, a policy analyst for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. “If we want the people who make the city great to keep living here, then we definitely need measures like this.”
“It’s been long overdue for a living wage,” said Robert “Tiger” Hammond, president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO. He suggested that the measure include the hiring of a compliance officer to ensure that contractors comply with the rules so that individual workers would not have to file costly lawsuits.
Though the comments were overwhelmingly favorable, there was pushback against a proposed amendment to the version of the ordinance presented in January. That amendment would remove so-called “subtenants,” the tenants or leaseholders of a contractor receiving city benefits, from the wage requirements. Several speakers said they worried that the change would diminish the measure.
“We found that that is a big loophole in the ordinance,” said Alfred Marshall, an activist with the workers advocacy group Stand With Dignity. “A lot of contractors will find a way to get around that.”
Brossett said the amendment would not apply to subcontractors, who still would be required to pay the living wage.
The council will have several amendments to consider when the ordinance comes up for a vote, probably on Aug. 6.
In addition to the amendment raising the proposed minimum wage from $10.10 to $10.55 an hour, there is an amendment calling for the wage to be adjusted upward — though never downward — each year in line with the Consumer Price Index.
Another amendment specifies that the legislation would apply only to companies with single city contracts valued at more than $25,000, not cumulative contracts totaling that amount.
Brossett’s office also is proposing a change to clarify that the ordinance is applicable to anyone who receives city aid, including tax incentives and certain grants of more than $100,000, in any 12-month period. The original proposed ordinance does not specify the 12-month period.
There also is a proposed amendment that would reduce the period of time that contract recipients must comply with the wage law after receiving aid from the city from 10 years to five years.
Another would allow employers to be exempted from the sick leave requirement if they pay their lowest-paid employee 30 percent above the living wage.
The ordinance would not apply to students and volunteers.