City to study living wage

    Proponents of a living wage for San Diego workers made headway when the Rules Committee of the San Diego City Council unanimously approved further investigation of the Responsible Wage and Health Care Benefits Ordinance on Nov. 5.

    Jessica Horton/Guardian
    Wage woes: Nancy Sherman, executive director of Harmonium, a nonprofit community childcare program, says her organization can’t afford to pay a living wage.

    The decision was made after the rules committee heard the input of around 50 San Diego citizens, workers and students gathered at City Hall. The meeting, which drew hundreds of living wage supporters and opponents, featured a presentation of the Responsible Wage and Health Care Benefits Ordinance, commonly known as the living wage ordinance, before Mayor Dick Murphy and a board of council members.

    Brandishing bright yellow “”Living Wage Now”” stickers, supporters filled the seats of the assembly room with students and workers, as well as ministers and priests holding open Bibles on their laps and quoting scripture on their turn to speak.

    Donald Cohen, president of the Center on Policy Initiatives, the main organization behind the living wage ordinance, began the meeting with a detailed presentation of the mandate’s goals, stipulations and potential effects on San Diegans and the economy. The floor was then opened to concerned individuals to argue the pros and cons of passing the ordinance.

    The Responsible Wage and Health Care Benefits Ordinance in San Diego is a proposed law that would require all contractors and businesses supported by the city to pay their employees a minimum of $11.95 an hour as well as provide workers with adequate health insurance or a health care differential. Already adopted in 110 cities across the United States, the living wage ordinance would also provide city employees, like janitors, security guards and concession operators, 20 days a year for sick leave and vacation.

    Some 50 pro-living wage supporters eager for their three minutes before the council outnumbered a handful of opponents who expressed their concerns about the economic effects of such an ordinance.

    Erica Balis, a San Diego native, was the first to speak for the pro side of the living wage debate.

    “”San Diego has the second-highest cost of living in the state of California, and yet we remain the only major city in this state that does not have a living wage ordinance,”” Balis said.

    Concerned citizen Andy Berg followed Balis by asserting “”it is time that we stop being complicit in providing jobs that don’t allow even for the basics.””

    Berg also described the reality that many low-income workers are forced to make long-term careers out of menial janitorial or landscaping jobs.

    “”We’re not asking that they buy a house in Rancho Santa Fe, or even a house in Rancho Penasquitos or Rancho San Diego ‹ but they should be able to get the basics to survive,”” Berg said.

    Living wage supporters state that many service employees in San Diego live at or below the poverty line. This, in turn, negatively affects the quality of service to the city and the public, their campaign claims. In addition to raising the standard of living for impoverished families, the campaign hopes that by increasing the pay of low-income workers, businesses and taxpayers will also benefit from increased productivity and reduced dependence on government-funded social programs. Some, however, were not convinced by the “”win-win”” situation described by living wage supporters.

    Patricia Walsh, executive director of the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association, strongly opposed the ordinance before the committee.

    “”ŒLiving wage’ is a convenient term that stirs emotion and sensational headlines, but let’s peel away the emotion and look at the facts,”” she said. “”The fact is that what is supported today is a request for the city of San Diego to mandate higher wages on a select number of businesses. Is this fair? Does it make good business sense? We do not believe so.””

    Representatives from social service organizations such as the YMCA and Harmonium also expressed concern for the possible detrimental effects of living wage.

    “”The YMCA is not taking a position either for or against the living wage ordinance at this time,”” after-school specialist Lynn Lesczcynski said. “”At the same time, there is no question that the ordinance would in fact create economic hardship and significant negative impact on all social service programs that are being contracted by the city with nonprofit providers.””

    Many who did not directly oppose the campaign demanded more information about the potential repercussions the ordinance would have on San Diego. Lisa Briggs, executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayer Association, clarified the association’s position.

    “”The taxpayer’s association is not currently opposed to the ordinance,”” she said. “”But we absolutely believe that further study is necessary.””

    The Rules Committee unanimously voted to further the study in a 90-day certain time frame. Results will be presented to the City Council in February 2004 for review.

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