Irvine’s City Council will soon consider repealing the city's living wage law, a move the council’s Republican majority touts as a money saver but critics say places them on the wrong side of an historic nationwide debate on income inequality.
The living wage ordinance, passed in 2007 when Democrats held the council majority, requires outside city contractors with contracts valued at $100,000 or more to at least match the lowest hourly rate paid to city employees. That equates to $10.82 for employees with benefits and $13.34 for employees without benefits.
The law requires the Irvine's contractors to not only pay the wage to employees working on their city contracts, but also to any worker it employs in Orange County.
The Council's Republicans say that drives up contract costs and places an unfair burden on Irvine’s taxpayers to subsidize employees in other cities.
“That is stealing from our taxpayers,” said Councilwoman Christina Shea. “It’s completely wrong.”
The Republican council members said the issue caught their attention when a contractor cited the law as the reason why it retracted its bid to perform custodial services. The vote was 3-1 to consider repealing the ordinance at the May 26 council meeting, with Democratic Councilwoman Beth Krom the only no vote and Councilwoman Lynn Schott absent.
Krom -- the only Democrat left on council after Republicans unseated the Democratic majority in 2012 -- accused the Republicans of being more interested intearing down the progressive policies that Democrats implemented than saving money for taxpayers.
Krom also said she doesn’t want the city to hire contractors who don’t pay decent wages to their employees, and she pointed out that the state’s minimum wage is steadily increasing and would likely soon eclipse the city’s living wage.
“To say that’s where we really need to cut, that’s what we need to stop, that’s what’s bringing down our city? That’s not what’s bringing down our city,” Krom said.
According to city staff, 15 city contracts totaling $18.4 million fall under the living wage ordinance.
A handful of public speakers were also divided on the issue.
Allan Bartlett, a city finance commissioner and an active member of the local Republican party, said the city’s living wage ordinance contradicted the country’s free market principles. It also drives up contract costs and could prevent companies from hiring high school kids looking for work during summer break, he said.
Bartlett said the city should “at the very least” repeal the requirement for contractors to pay all employees countywide a living wage.
“I mean this is capitalism. We live under a capitalist system,” Bartlett said.
Tim Steed, internal organizer with the Orange County Employees Association, which represents tens of thousands of public employees at the county and many cities, including Irvine, cited the raging national debate over income inequality and said Irvine has been a leader in holding the line on fair compensation.
“Are you gonna sit here and say you were on the wrong side of what will be one of the most important issues of the 21st century?” Steed asked the council.
Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway argued that the city’s living wage ordinance is falsely labeled because the minimum wages aren’t enough for a family to live comfortably in the city. He said government shouldn’t be interfering with a transaction between consenting individuals and that the city’s voters spoke when they elected a conservative majority.
“The living wage is not a living wage at all. It’s called a feel good wage,” Lalloway said. “We’re unnaturally inflating the amount we’re paying for services in the city. I don’t know how that’s consistent with our fiduciary responsibility.”