One thing the collapse of the financial markets makes clear: We are all in this economy together.
When working people can’t make ends meet — and can’t pay their mortgages — the house of cards falls down on all of us. When people in our community are struggling to scrape by on poverty wages, it’s everybody’s problem, and not just for humanitarian reasons. Locally as well as nationally, a healthy economy depends on strong middle-class jobs with paychecks that cover the bills.
The city of San Diego recognized this basic economic truth in 2005 when it adopted a living wage law. As with similar measures in about 120 other cities and counties, the law says companies that have contracts with the city must pay their workers at least a “living wage,” one that is enough to meet basic living expenses. In San Diego, it’s about $13 an hour this year — still a low wage but significantly more than minimum wage.
The living wage keeps many workers and families in our community on their feet financially. The difference of $2 to $5 an hour means dental care for some families, college tuition for others, and in some cases it means a family can keep up with house payments.
It’s a great law. The problem is enforcement.
This August, staff from the Center on Policy Initiatives (www.onlineCPI.org), and our allies did some field research at city parks, libraries, police stations and other facilities. We talked to more than 80 workers for 14 janitorial, landscaping and security companies with city contracts.
We heard the moving stories of the living wage keeping family budgets afloat. But we mostly learned of contractors violating the law. Many of the workers didn’t even know there is a living wage law. Those being paid at the required level usually had company seniority; new workers were not getting the living wage. And most workers said they don’t get the required annual increase.
The living wage law also has requirements for paid vacation and sick days, and a provision encouraging health benefits. All of that was news to many workers we spoke with.
One janitor, Kenneth Wells, newly informed that he should be making the living wage, asked his employer about it. He was fired. After a long battle and a lawsuit, Kenneth got back pay and a job with another contractor. The owner of another company, Prudential Uniform Supply, flat-out refused to pay the living wage. He eventually was forced to pay back wages to settle a lawsuit.
Enforcement of this crucial law has been practically an honor system. The city administration dedicated one-half of one staff person’s time to monitor and enforce the living wage requirement for its more than 100 contracts. Workers can file complaints, but how many people who desperately need their jobs want to take that big a risk of angering the boss?
The city has now added one person to the living wage enforcement staff. That’s a good start, but much more is needed to make sure our tax dollars aren’t flowing to employers who cheat their workers out of a fair and legal wage. Other businesses thrive while paying decent wages and providing health insurance; they shouldn’t have to compete for city business with those who don’t.
We’re all in this local economy together. The city government protects us all by ensuring that working families can make ends meet.