New Orleans City Councilmember Jared C. Brossett

New Orleans City Council member Jared C. Brossett

City Councilman Jared Brossett is stepping up his criticism of how Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration is handling the roll-out of his "living wage" ordinance for employees of city contractors, arguing that the process has been too slow and violates the terms of the law passed last year.

Should some employees decide to sue to try to force the city to follow the law, Brossett said, the administration shouldn't count on the council to support it in court.

The dispute played out in recent days during the council's hearings on New Orleans' 2017 budget, as Brossett pressed the administration for details on when existing contracts would be brought into compliance with the law, which says that employees working on city contracts must be paid at least $10.55 an hour. But that timeline remains unclear.

"It's still disheartening," Brossett said after Thursday's budget meeting.

The council passed the living wage ordinance, which Brossett authored, last year, and it went into effect Jan. 1. It says that all new contracts and extensions of existing agreements must require that employees be paid the specified minimum wage and also receive a week's paid time off each year.

The administration has argued that state law prevents it from unilaterally changing the terms of a contract that is up for renewal, even as it has granted such extensions rather than rebid some expiring contracts.

Brossett said that circumvents the intention of the rules, possibly opening the city up to lawsuits from employees of firms that are paying them less than $10.55 an hour.

"It's my position that the living wage should apply to renewals. If it does end up in court, I don't want (the administration) representing the legislative branch," Brossett said.

It remains unclear how many workers on city contracts are in fact being paid less than the amount specified in the living wage ordinance.

Administration officials told the City Council that new city contracts do include the wage requirement and that they're reviewing more than 1,000 existing contracts to make determinations about which ones should be rebid to add the higher minimum.

"It wouldn't be practical and would result in poor service probably if we tried to rebid every contract the city has at one time," City Attorney Rebecca Dietz said.

"You all make it sound like it's too cumbersome and you choose not to do it, basically," Brossett said.

Dietz replied that it was up to the departments responsible for the contracts to choose whether to renew or rebid them.

One contract that will be rebid next year is the roughly $800,000 contract for janitorial services at city buildings. The administration extended that contract for a year in May without adding the living wage requirement.

Don Early, one of the workers on the contract, told the City Council on Thursday that it should provide the workers with a raise. "I see you all when I'm working every day," Early said as he made his plea.

Attorney David Capasso, who appeared with Early, also forcefully denounced the extension of city contracts that include lower wages.

"Please don't brag about your living wage ordinance while this man is making $7.25 an hour," he said.

The 50 to 60 employees working on that contract, and another 20 on a related agreement for New Orleans Police Department buildings, are all likely making only the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, Director of Property Management George Patterson told the council.

Brossett said those employees would be better off if they worked directly for the city, under a Landrieu administration policy that provides a living wage for city workers.

Patterson said such a change would likely cost the city about $3 million a year, when city wages and benefits were taken into account.

"Do you think it's fair these employees are being paid a non-living wage of $7.25?" Brossett asked. "What's wrong with them being paid $30,000 (a year)?"

"I understand what you're saying, but I don't have a personal opinion about it. I'm an appointee of this administration, and I do as I'm directed," Patterson said.

Most other council members stayed out of the exchanges, though Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey asked for more information on how the "living wage" law is being implemented.

During the exchange between Brossett and Dietz, council President Stacy Head said the issue should be hashed out between the council and the Mayor's Office.

"If we disagree with that policy, or council members disagree with that policy, we should have a policy discussion with the administration," Head said.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​