LIVING WAGE RESURRECTED

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The living wage bill is dead. Long live the living wage bill!

Back in 1995, City Councilman Sal Albanese sponsored a living wage bill that would have guaranteed $12 an hour for employees of companies doing business with the city. Savaged by the mayor and business lobbyists, that proposal died, replaced by a bill that became law in 1996–a watered-down regulation that doesn’t set a wage floor and only covers about 1,400 people.

Now a draft of a new living wage bill is making the rounds–and its backers are hoping that, this time, they’ll have wide enough support to guarantee at least $10 an hour for the approximately 100,000 people who work for city contractors.

To do that, they’re going to have to build more government money into the deal. Last time the living wage bill came up for discussion, most of the city’s charities and nonprofits wouldn’t back it. Lobbying together as the Human Services Council, they held out for extra money from the city to cover the difference between wages. When the city government refused the contract hike, the big nonprofits, fearing for the bottom lines of their smaller colleagues, refused to back the Albanese bill.

The final compromise bill only covered janitors, office temps, security guards, and foodservice workers–and substituted “prevailing wage” for the more stringent “living wage.” For some of the sectors covered under that law, that means a decent paycheck, says Paul Sonn of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, who is helping to draft the legislation. “But for some of the workers–in fact, perversely, those who need a raise the most–the prevailing wage is around seven and change an hour.”

With a plusher budget and a lame-duck mayor, the chances for this new bill look brighter. Its backers are now circulating copies of the draft and talking to nonprofits, trying to come up with creative ways of getting the extra money for smaller nonprofits and charities–from Albany, perhaps, or even the feds.

They’re also planning to make the living wage bill a litmus test in next year’s upcoming mayoral and City Council races. “This is gonna be good, and it’s gonna be big,” said Bertha Lewis of ACORN and the Working Families Party, who is pulling together support for the bill. “I want to make sure everybody’s on board for this one!”