Ricardo Rojas has worked for a landscaping company for eight years and maintains San Diego city parks. Five years ago, Ricardo was making a little over the minimum wage and struggling to support his family, even though he was working long hours. He was not able to go to a dentist, or spend time with his family.

Then, a new law enacted by the city in 2005, transformed his life. He was able to buy a car to get to work, some furniture for his home and clothes for his family. Moreover, the family could afford going to a doctor, and support his frail mother. Ricardo says, the new law, “it was like it came from heaven”.

On April 12, 2005 the San Diego City Council voted to approve the Living Wage Ordinance that Bishop McKinney said would offer low-wage workers “the bread of life that they may better support themselves and their families.” This was a historic day on which over 600 workers, faith leaders, labor and community members stood in Civic Center Plaza in support of a landmark ordinance that marked a new direction for San Diego.

The idea of living wages is not just about giving the minimum-wage workers employed on city contracts a raise, though that is the direct impact. It is about all San Diegans being able to make ends meet when they work for it. It is about living a decent quality of life in dignity when wages are falling, hours are being cut and local jobs lost. It is about creating a stronger middle-class when San Diego’s teardrop economy is shaped by few middle-income jobs and an increasing number of poverty-wage jobs.

Five years later, the city reports that the Living Wage Ordinance “advances the interests of the City as a whole by creating jobs that keep workers and their families out of poverty.” The measurable human impact of living wages as documented by a city survey of contractors is dramatic:

  • Almost 1,000 local workers for city contractors in services like landscaping, janitorial services, security and maintenance now earn the Living Wage, which is $27,456 a year for a full-time job. Compared to $16,640 a year on minimum wage, that is a difference that can move a family in poverty a step closer to self-sufficiency.
  • One-in-four workers now receive health coverage through their employers, and the rest receive $2 an hour toward buying their own coverage. Almost half the workforce is offered health insurance, a significant feat in occupations where the rates of uninsured is high. T

There were some who cried “wolf” over the ordinance, predicting that it would lead to business demise and contractors fleeing the city. The Union Tribune reports that has not happened.

On the contrary, the city also documents benefits of living wage for businesses and the taxpayers:

  • Nearly half of the employers required to pay the Living Wage self-reported that it has improved the quality of their company’s services for the city.
  • Almost half of employers say it has reduced absenteeism or turnover.

Indeed, paying a self-sufficiency wage makes good business sense, as recognized by Henry Ford in his My Life and Work in 1922:

Many employers thought that we were just making the announcement because we were prosperous and wanted advertising and they condemned us because we were upsetting standards – violating the custom of paying a man the smallest amount he could take. There is nothing to such standards and customs. They have to be wiped out. Some day they will be. Otherwise, we cannot abolish poverty. We made the change not merely because we wanted to pay higher wares and thought we could pay them. We wanted to pay these wages so that business would be on a lasting foundation. We were not distributing anything – we were building for the future. A low-wage business is always insecure.

Living wages stimulate local business activity and create local jobs. Our middle-class workforce takes their paychecks and goes to the local grocery store, or to buy medicine, or childcare. This in turn creates more jobs — the money keeps circulating in the local economy.

As the economy turns, paying a living wage ensures that these jobs, no matter what they are, allow a worker to live a life with dignity and respect.

This week marks the 5-year anniversary of living wages in San Diego which will be celebrated by a free folk-rock concert by Michelle Shocked in the Civic Center Plaza at noon on Tuesday, April 13th and a proclamation by elected officials.

As the music of a new recovery lifts our spirits, let us keep the living wage alive in our hearts.


Murtaza Baxamusa

Murtaza Baxamusa works for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corp. and volunteered as a special policy adviser for Bob Filner.

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