New York Times, January 27, 2008: Proposal Seeks a Break for Low-Wage Workers

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A SINGLE mother of two grown children, Deborah Smith puts in 46 hours a week as a home health aide a job she has held for more than 20 years yet barely makes ends meet.

Earning $9.38 an hour for her union job, Ms. Smith, 47, said her pay is quickly consumed by rent, insurance and bus fare. The Yonkers resident lives in one of the city۪s public housing projects, rounds out meals with help from local food pantries and regularly borrows a few dollars from her sister.

With no money left for extras, Ms. Smith splurges only on cable TV. Her son-in-law, a barber, cuts her hair free.

“It۪s very hard living in the gracious City of Yonkers at $9.38 an hour,” said Ms. Smith, who is the treasurer of the Westchester-Putnam Working Families Party. “It۪s not enough.”

Ms. Smith is one of the thousands of Yonkers workers at the crux of a continuing debate in the city about a “living wage” proposal that would make Yonkers the first Westchester municipality to increase the hourly wage above the state minimum. The issue, being debated once again at City Hall, pits advocates for low-wage workers who support the idea against opponents who argue a wage increase will keep businesses away at a time of unprecedented economic development.

The proposal which in the last year has been approved by the City Council and vetoed by Mayor Philip A. Amicone twice would require larger businesses to pay their employees at least $11.85 an hour, and $1.50 toward health or other benefits, which is above the state minimum wage of $7.15.

That increase would bring an individual working full time up to the Westchester County poverty line, said Chuck Lesnick, the City Council president, who is a lawyer and supporter of the wage increase. The law, Mr. Lesnick said, is meant not only to help longtime workers like Ms. Smith but also to set a new standard for the owners of retail stores and other businesses expected to come into the city.

The aging Cross County Shopping Center is under renovation. A new mall at Ridge Hill is hoping to lure high-end retailers, and the plans for downtown mixed retail and real estate developments near the Yonkers waterfront are under way.

“The idea is that the rising tide lifts all boats, so we want to make sure that everybody is getting a little bit,” Mr. Lesnick said.

Opponents, however, say that increasing the cost of doing business in Yonkers could deter retailers from moving into the city at a time when the city is trying to court them.

In Mr. Amicone۪s second veto message (he vetoed the City Council۪s first approval of the proposal in March), the mayor said a minimum wage increase could put the city at a competitive economic disadvantage that would harm efforts to attract a range of retailers. In addition, the proposal could cost the city millions of dollars in higher wages and contracts, he said. (Estimates show the wage increase would cost the city $700,000 to $2.5 million, Mr. Lesnick said.)

Dee Barbato, a city councilwoman who voted against the proposal, said she did not want to send the wrong message to businesses the city has worked so hard to attract.

“The last thing I want to do is chase out developers and businesses and not have any jobs, let alone living wage jobs,” Ms. Barbato said. “Everyone says we۪re on the brink of a recession. Is this the time we should be hammering new businesses that are coming into the city?”

The law would apply to a wide range of businesses, including those that have at least $25,000 a year in city contracts or receive at least $150,000 in city subsidies, like tax exemptions and other incentives.

Private businesses with more than five employees, occupying more than 15,000 square feet or generating more than $1 million in gross revenues, would also be affected. That aspect is a major difference between the Yonkers proposal and the Westchester County living wage law, which applies only to entities that do business with the county. The law does not apply to workers under age 18.

Some of the restrictions were meant to quell concerns that the proposed wage increase would hurt small business owners, local leaders said.

Mr. Lesnick said he was not concerned about offending large retailers since the kind of stores being lured to the city L. L. Bean, Whole Foods and Target are possibilities should, and often do, pay higher wages anyway.

Some business leaders disagree. Kevin Cacace, president of the Yonkers Chamber of Commerce, said a local minimum wage increase would take its toll on the city by giving businesses reason to leave. “Requiring these companies to pay rates that far exceed those in the surrounding towns and cities doesn۪t make sense,” Mr. Cacace said.

Mr. Cacace said he also believed the proposal was too aggressive by applying to private businesses, rather than just those with government ties as the county law does. “I think that۪s a big mistake,” he said.

Individuals on the retail floor, however, say a wage increase could ultimately benefit businesses as well as employees, primarily by making hourly jobs attractive to qualified individuals who otherwise would not take them.

Able to offer only slightly more than the minimum wage, Kevin Nichols, manager of KB Toys at the Cross County Shopping Center, said he would have better luck attracting a qualified sales staff if he could offer more money.

Instead, Mr. Nichols, who started as an hourly KB employee 12 years ago, said he now has to piece together a fleet of part-time staffers willing to work for less.

“I would be able to get more high-quality people who wouldn۪t mind doing retail,” Mr. Nichols said.

Meantime, proponents say they are discussing the details of their most recent living wage proposal, which the City Council approved in October, and deciding whether they will change portions of it in response to opponents۪ concerns. That could require concessions on certain points of dispute, like whether tenants of new developments would be excluded from the law, they say.

While such concessions may be necessary for both sides to come to agreement, proponents like Mr. Lesnick say they believe Yonkers has little to risk by keeping low-paying businesses out of the city.

“If Wal-Mart doesn۪t want to come to Yonkers because they don۪t want to pay the living wage, then we don۪t care,” he said.

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