Low-wage workers carrying out contracts for the city of New Orleans and employees of businesses that have benefited from city subsidies could be looking at raises as a plan that would boost their pay to at least $10.10 an hour moves through the City Council.
Workers’ advocates praised the measure as a step in the right direction, helping workers to lift themselves out of poverty. But they called for raising the floor even higher or instituting a more wide-ranging increase to the minimum wage that would require changes in state law.
The “living wage” ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Jared Brossett, still needs to clear the council before becoming law. But after a hearing before the council’s Economic Development and Special Projects Committee on Tuesday, it’s clear there’s more than enough support to pass the measure.
Council President Jason Williams, Councilman James Gray and Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey all voted along with Brossett to move it out of committee. In addition, Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who is not on the committee, spoke in favor of the measure.
“This is larger than just economics,” Williams said. “This is fixing what is broken in this community so that we don’t have to build more jails, so we don’t have to have more police, so we can just have people who work hard every day and be above the poverty line.”
The living wage ordinance, modeled on similar laws in about 125 other cities, would require companies that have contracts with the city worth at least $25,000 and projects that receive more than $100,000 in tax abatements, grants or subsidies from the city to pay a minimum of $10.10 an hour to the employees who perform work under those contracts or who work at sites that benefit from public money. In addition, those employees would have to receive at least seven days of paid sick leave a year.
The number of workers who would be affected and how much the measure would cost are not yet clear, though Brossett has asked the Landrieu administration for an estimate.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu last year pushed through a $10.10 minimum wage for city workers.
In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called on Congress to raise the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, though the Republican-controlled Congress has no plans to do so. On his own, Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for people working on new federal service contracts to $10.10.
Numerous reports have cited the high poverty rates in New Orleans and Louisiana and blamed them in part on low wages. A report by Loyola University’s Jesuit Social Research Institute earlier this year estimated that 52 percent of families with children in the state do not earn enough to live a “modest, dignified life” and estimated it would take a combined full-time household income of more than $26 an hour to allow two parents and a child to meet their needs.
Some speakers at Tuesday’s meeting cited statistics showing that 39 percent of New Orleans children live in poverty.
Louisiana defaults to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour for employees who don’t receive tips, which amounts to less than $15,100 a year for a full-time worker. Under the minimum set by Brossett’s ordinance, covered full-time employees would make about $21,000 a year.
The difficulties that low wages create for workers were highlighted by advocates with the workers rights organization Stand With Dignity and other groups that support a national push for a minimum wage of $15 an hour. Several speakers Tuesday suggested that rate, or an even higher figure, as a more desirable goal than the minimum included in the ordinance.
“A person can’t live off that ($10.10 an hour) with the cost of living in New Orleans extremely high as it is. They can’t do it, but they do it,” activist Joseph Kennedy said. “We need to take a further step, a much larger step forward.”
If it wins the support of the full council, the measure will then go to Landrieu for his signature. Landrieu proposed a $10.10 floor for city employees last year, a move that won the approval of the Civil Service Commission in the fall and boosted the wages of about 200 city employees.
The Landrieu administration has pointed to that effort when asked about Brossett’s ordinance, though officials have stopped short of directly endorsing the proposal.
“Mayor Landrieu supports a better quality of life for all New Orleans residents, which is why he has led by example by implementing paid parental leave and increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for city employees,” spokesman Brad Howard said. “In the coming weeks, we will be carefully reviewing the ordinance and working with Councilmember Brossett on this issue.”
State law prohibits local governments in Louisiana from setting their own minimum wage. Brossett has worked with state Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, on House Bill 677, which would repeal that provision. The measure has not been heard by any committees during this year’s legislative session and seems unlikely to win passage.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.