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City Council Debates Revised 'Living Wage' Bill

By Jill Colvin | November 23, 2011 11:24am
"Living wages is critical for people to be able to maintain communities," said Dr. Delois Blakely, who attended the Nov. 22, 2011, hearing.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

CITY HALL — The City Council faced off on controversial legislation Tuesday that would force developers who receive big city grants to pay their workers a so-called "living wage.”

The proposed law, which has been significantly watered down in recent months, has deep support across the largely Democratic Council. But it has been slammed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who panned it as a job killer that would drive developers out of New York.

That debate has put all eyes on City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has yet to take a public stand on the bill, which has deeply divided many of those she will have to court in her presumptive run for mayor.

Under the proposed legislation, developers who received more than $1 million in city subsidies would be forced to pay workers at least $10 an hour, plus benefits, or $11.50 without — significantly higher than current minimum wage.

The bill has less bite than an earlier version that set the cap at $100,000 in city funds. The proposed measure also excludes affordable housing projects, manufacturing businesses and small businesses making less than $5 million a year.

The chief sponsor of the legislation, Bronx Councilman Oliver Koppell, said every year the city spends millions of tax dollars subsidizing developers, while paying their workers “poverty-level” wages that make it nearly impossible to make ends meet.

“These jobs are not giving New Yorkers the adequate resources needed to provide for their families,” he said, arguing that the bill specifically targets “jobs that can be living-wage jobs without impairing economic development.”

Other supporters framed the push as a moral issue, citing the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow.

“I don’t understand the opposition to this. I don’t understand why we are trying to scare people,” said Brooklyn Councilwoman Letitia James, who said that since the downturn, job growth has been limited to the lowest-wage jobs.

“We should be ashamed if anyone has any reservations concerning this bill,” she added.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. argued that despite the billions of dollars in economic investment that have flowed to areas like his borough, poverty has only grown worse.

“We cannot continue to be married to one economic model,” he said.

Supporters also pointed to other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland, where living-wage legislation is already in place.

But opponents pointed a bleaker picture and blasted the plan as ill-conceived, warning that it will hit those trying to invest in the city while they’re already down.

“I think you’ve got a legal nightmare,” said Jack Kittle, political director of District Council 9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, who said the bill would become just another barrier to development in the city, and would hinder job creation.

Rob Bookman, the lawyer of the New York Nightlife Association, also warned the bill would create thousands of landlord-tenant disputes, as tenants — like stores and restaurants — are forced to pay their employees higher wages, even though it is developers who benefit from city subsidy perks.

He described the bill as “The Landlord-Tenant Lawyers Full Employment Act.”

Quinn, In a carefully worded statement read to open the hearing, revealed little about her stance.

On one side, she pointed to the growing gulf between the rich and poor, and stagnant wages for middle and lower-income earners. She argued that “too many fear that no amount of hard work can guarantee that you will be able to provide a better life for your children.”

Nonetheless, she acknowledged that raising some wages could come with a price.

“It is my hope that we can find a way to reach that goal without doing anything that would make New York City a less desirable place to start or relocate a business, or hurt our job creation efforts in any way,” she said.

“Whether such a balance is achievable is what we’re going to explore and try to answer in today’s hearing."

Among the measure's others supporters are Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

Among those opposed are Steve McInnis, Political Director of the New York City District Council of Carpenters, and Pat Brodhagen, from the Food Industry Alliance, which represents grocery stores across New York.

The Independent Budget Office estimated Tuesday that, had the law been in place, approximately 42 projects built in the city from 2002 to 2008 would have been subject to the wage regulations, including those associated with names like the American Stock Exchange, NASDAQ, Ernst & Young, Bank of America, the New York Post, and buildings like 7 World Trade Center, Yankee Stadium and Metrotech in Brooklyn.