Payday Dismay

The City Doesn't Abide By Its Own Living Wage Ordinance.

ALMOST 20 PERCENT of the City of Tucson's workforce is paid less than $9 per hour and receives no benefits, according to information produced recently by the city's human resources department. Yet one year ago this week, the City Council voted to impose a "living wage" requirement on some contractors doing business with the city.

That "living wage" provision meant many private firms would have to pay their employees at least $9 per hour for work on city projects if they didn't receive health insurance benefits, and $8 if they did. It was intended, according to the adopted ordinance, to "increase the ability of these employees to attain sustenance, decrease the amount of poverty and reduce the amount of taxpayer-funded social services in Tucson."

"My God!" was the response of Jim Watson of the AFL-CIO and a "living wage" supporter, when told of the city's dual standard of pay. "The City Council should want to live up to its own ordinance. If they are serious about economic development, they must correct this. It is just a charade if they don't comply themselves."

Ron Stuht, director of government affairs for the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the "living wage" ordinance, agrees the city is being two-faced in not following its own law. "It seems kind of ridiculous to require private contractors to comply while the city is not," Stuht says. "The city ought to comply."

Some officials justify the municipal hypocrisy toward pay by pointing out that most of the 1,500 city employees that earn less than the "living wage" standard are part-time, seasonal or intermittent workers. People in this last category, however, may work 30 or more flexible hours per week, but receive neither benefits nor a "living wage" salary.

Private contractors covered by the "living wage" ordinance do not have the benefit of this "not permanent, not full-time employee" escape clause. Wayne Casper, the city's director of procurement, sums it up for affected companies doing business with the municipality: "There are no exceptions on the wage rates whether an employee works one or 40 hours per week."

The city's "pay as we say, not as we do" standard starts in the offices of the mayor and City Council members. They employ six part-time office workers who are paid $8.19 an hour without health insurance or any other benefits. The rate-of-pay discrepancy extends into the city manager's office, where four intermittent clerks earn less than $9 an hour without benefits.

While almost every city department includes some people earning less than the "living wage" standard, the public library system and the parks and recreation department top the list. Over 120 intermittent library pages are paid $7.42 an hour without medical benefits for their labor. The number of parks workers earning less than $9 an hour total 1,260. While this figure includes hundreds of seasonal swimming-pool employees, it also covers dozens of general maintenance workers being paid $8.19 an hour without health insurance, and lots of concession workers earning less than $6 an hour.

City procurement's Casper reports that 26 contracts with private-sector businesses are now covered by the "living wage" ordinance. These firms provide services ranging from general cleaning and repair to commercial property management and specialized maintenance.

Casper says that implementation of the ordinance over the past nine months has encountered only a few problems, the largest one being a contract for two highly paid workers. The "living wage" ordinance, in addition to dictating the amount that must be paid to private employees working on city jobs, also requires that 60 percent of each firm's affected employees shall live within the city limits. In this case, one of the employees resides outside the city--meaning the company was not in compliance with the law--but Casper waived the requirement.

In January Casper expects to report back to the City Council on the impacts of the "living wage" ordinance. He'll be suggesting some changes in the language to clarify gray areas about exactly which firms are covered by the regulations and about how the residency requirements should, or should not, apply to small, specialized firms.

Original estimates for the annual cost of requiring that a "living wage" be paid to city-contracted private employees ranged from $600,000 to $1.2 million; Casper says he hasn't calculated the actual figures yet. But Stuht of the Chamber of Commerce has heard that for the transportation department and the Tucson Convention Center alone, the ordinance has cost the taxpayers an extra $400,000 to $500,000.

The AFL-CIO's Watson isn't bothered by those figures. "If the average taxpayer has to pay $2 more a year for the living wage, I think they'd be very happy with it," he says.

Stuht, however, calls the ordinance "social engineering" and the residency requirement "onerous," and says the Chamber of Commerce still opposes any kind of wage requirement. But union man Watson says he and others are trying to see to it that local employees are paid at a dignified level, and to achieve this goal, "We still have to do more."

One of those additional steps is implementing the voluntary "Mayor's Living Wage Club." Announced with great fanfare but no specifics by Bob Walkup in January, the idea was intended to encourage higher wages while promoting those businesses that pay a "living wage." Since then, a committee has been meeting secretly to discuss things like how high the wages to be paid by club members should be and what the logo for the club should look like.

According to Andrew Greenhill, Walkup's chief of staff, those participating in the discussions "care about workforce development and raising wages across the board." By the end of the year, Greenhill says, the mayor hopes to announce the specifics of membership in his "Living Wage Club." It remains to be seen if the City of Tucson will join.

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