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Council moves towards higher minimum wage

Friday, May 22, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

The city of Austin inched closer to a higher minimum wage for its employees Thursday. City Council members voted to direct City Manager Marc Ott to consider a minimum wage raise when he sits down to craft the coming year’s budget.

But if Ott does follow Council’s direction, it’s not yet clear how far he will go.

“The resolution does not stipulate what that minimum wage should be,” said Council Member Greg Casar, who sponsored the item.

Last fall, the city formed a Living Wage Stakeholder Group to determine an appropriate minimum wage for city employees. Though its recommendation is not included in the written resolution, the group settled on an hourly wage of $13.03 (the current minimum wage is $11.39, set in 2008). The group, made up of representatives from labor unions and local chambers of commerce, met several times over the past six months.

Members of the group stressed that the $13.03 rate is a very conservative one.

“I think it’s a good start, but I do think that over the next several years that wage does have to keep climbing,” Carol Guthrie told the Austin Monitor. Guthrie, a member of the stakeholder group, is the business manager for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

According to a memo sent to Council members and Mayor Steve Adler, the group originally considered upping the hourly minimum wage to $16.83, a rate that was based on housing prices in Austin and recommended in a study completed for the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department. But Guthrie says the group calculated that this would cost the city $15 million.

With the help of a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, members multiplied what they called a poverty wage for Austin ($5.21 an hour) by 250 percent to get the recommended hourly pay of $13.03. But this number falls short of other minimum wages throughout the city, including the pay set for Austin Community College employees, which is $13.38. In the memo, members wrote that the original rate of $16.83 should be a goal for the city to reach by the year 2020.

Another participant in the stakeholder group, Bob Batlin, reiterated this idea at Council’s meeting on Thursday. “We recommend that the city take incremental steps to reach this housing-based living wage by 2020,” said Batlin, who is a member of Austin Interfaith. “Steps to reach the living-wage goal would be large,” he conceded.

Council Member Don Zimmerman voted against the resolution Thursday, saying he did not understand how the city manager could be directed to come up with one, uniform minimum wage for all employees.

“I just looked up the minimum salary – you might think of it as a living wage – for NFL rookies,” said Zimmerman, whose research on the dais revealed these players receive an average annual pay of $435,000. “The reason most of us can’t earn $435,000 is because we’re not NFL football players. We don’t have the physical talent and the ability to do that, or the youthfulness, or what have you. We’re talking about trying to come up with a number that people can live on instead of what are people worth according to their abilities and talents in the market.”

Zimmerman said he could not support the resolution because its intention, to designate a minimum living pay for city employees, was tenuous.

“Every one of us would need a different number for our living wage,” he said. “It’s a definition that escapes accurate description.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair also said she would vote against the item, but for a reason different than Zimmerman’s. She said that part of the resolution – a passage stating that Council members hope the city manager will consider minimum wage increases in future budgets beyond the current one – made her nervous.

“I don’t know what kind of issues and policy questions we’re going to be facing next year, and the year after, and the year after,” she said.

Undeterred, the rest of the dais voted to support the minimum wage item. It passed with a vote of 8-2, with Council Member Delia Garza absent.

Kevin Rutherford [CC BY-SA 4.0 or CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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