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Labor Groups Defend San Diego Living Wage

July 5, 2012 1:25 p.m.


Corrine Wilson, Policy Director, Center On Policy Initiatives

Related Story: Labor Group Says ConVis Does Not Want To Pay Living Wage


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: You're listening to Midday Edition. I'm Alison St. John. San Diego City passed a living wage ordinance in 2005. Since then, hundreds if not thousands of workers who might otherwise have been paid minimum wage have been earning the living wage instead. Groups rallied today to say they're worried the visitor's bureau is going to try to sidestep the landmark feature in the future. We did invite them on the show, but they were unable to join us. We have in studio Corrine Wilson, who is the director of the center of policy initiatives.

WILSON: Glad to be here.

ST. JOHN: So first of all, how significant is the living wage really to working people in San Diego City?

WILSON: The living wage makes such a huge difference. It currently just went up on July 1st. It is indexed to cost of living. And it's $13.77 an hour, which is significantly higher than the California state minimum wage of $8 an hour.

ST. JOHN: Okay. That's what? Like $5 more an hour?


ST. JOHN: Which adds up.

WILSON: Yes. And that is close to $29,000 a year if a worker is working full-time, and that's enough to pull a family of four out of poverty.

ST. JOHN: I was going to ask you that. It still seems like slim pickin's if you're trying to support a family.

WILSON: You could not support a family of four on living wage, because the cost of the living in San Diego is so high. This does pull people out of poverty. But it is not enough for the city -- or for the county of San Diego.

ST. JOHN: Okay. But it is in fact -- when you look at it annually, that's like $12,000 a year more.

WILSON: That's correct.

ST. JOHN: How many people are affected by the ordinance?

WILSON: There is -- it changes every year, just a little bit, depending on the contracts. But about 1000 to 1,200.

ST. JOHN: Okay. 1,200 at any one time?


ST. JOHN: Is it people only employed by the city directly?

WILSON: No, it's actually contractors with the city. So we're talking about service contracts. Many of the contracts and the workers are food servers or handlers at the Convention Center, we're talking about landscapers, janitors, security guards, all of whom are actually contracted to work at the city.

ST. JOHN: Now, have you had a problem enforcing it? Are this contractors who have tried to sidestep it in the last few years?

WILSON: There are, actually. There was a debarment of a landscape be contractor last month. He actually had not been paying his workers at all! There was a worker complaint, and when the city went to look at what happened, he didn't have records. So actually he was brought up on criminal charges at the county and then subsequently disbarred at the city permanently.

ST. JOHN: That is a very extreme case.

WILSON: That is.

ST. JOHN: That's an employer who is just -- not even a real, proper businessman. But there have been cases where you've had contractors who tried to undercut the living wage?

WILSON: There are worker complaints, and those are taken care of at the city. The city administrator works very hard to work on that mainly through contacting the contractors, and reminding them of their responsibilities.

ST. JOHN: Why did you guys hold a rally today? What is happening at the visitors' bureau that has you concerned?

WILSON: There was a aren't City Council decision to turn some of the sales and marketing functions of the Convention Center over to the convention and tourism bureau, ConViz. And pretty much the first thing that happened is they moved to exempt themselves from the living wage. And you know, it's the law. So it's a concern as to why they would want to try to exempt themselves.

ST. JOHN: Can they legally do that?

WILSON: The city attorney I believe has said that no, in fact they cannot. But really this is the minimum standard that we should expect for jobs that are receiving public money.

ST. JOHN: So if the city attorney has said they cannot, what leads you to believe that it might actually be a threat?

WILSON: Well, it depends -- we'll see what happens next week at City Council. But really is this about our values as a community. We believe that if you work, you should be able to afford at least the basics. You should be able to afford food, care when you're sick, a roof over your head. So it should be, I think, an expansive feeling rather than trying to get exemptions.

ST. JOHN: Now, I know that when ConViz was given -- it's not actually control of the Convention Center, is it? But they can book the Convention Center. Bob Filner who's running for mayor said that it was the largest shift of public assets into private hands that he's seen in quite a long time. So is this move to sidestep the living wage a signal that he could be right?

WILSON: It's possible. I'm hoping that it is a misunderstanding.

ST. JOHN: A misunderstanding. Okay.

WILSON: That's my hope.

ST. JOHN: And so is that -- how would you -- how are you proposing to sort this one out?

WILSON: Well, it is the law. So I think we'll just look at it through that lens.

ST. JOHN: What about the Convention Center itself? Where do they stand on all this? Do you know?

WILSON: You know, I don't actually know where they stand on.

ST. JOHN: So what we're talking about here is ConViz. Of it's not a public but a private agency. It's possibly subcontracting out some of the jobs at the expanded Convention Center; is that right?

WILSON: There is that option.

ST. JOHN: And so it might be those jobs that would be affected by this?

WILSON: I believe so, yes.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So what is the case that you're going to be making to the City Council to suggest that this is not a good idea?

WILSON: Well, again, this is a wonderful law. It is the law. It helps all of us in San Diego county because it does raise people up out of poverty. And we need good jobs in the City of San Diego, in the region we need good jobs. Over the last ten years, the center on policy initiatives, we took a look at private employment in the region, and from 2001-2010, I'm kind of looking at it as a lost decade in private employment. We did not really add that many jobs in the region. But what did happen was we lost good paying jobs, we lost jobs that paid an average of $62,500 a year, and replaced them with jobs that pay less than $50,000 a year. And that really does bring all of us down. The quality of life in San Diego County, the standard of living, is measured by a per capita annual income. And if that's being brought down by lower paying jobs, then we really are all losing.

ST. JOHN: So what you're saying is that in terms of all the different issues that the labor groups in San Diego are involved in, this is a pretty important one for you. It's kind of a benchmark, isn't it?

WILSON: It really is. Of the workers that we've spoken with that receive the living wage that is correct I talk about how much it really makes difference to them, how they're able to help their elderly parents with the cost of medications. They're able to help their children attend college. Some of them have actually gone back to further their own education, and that's important. But more than that, employers that pay the living wage have reported that it really helps them too. They've reported that it helps their firm's quality of service, it's lowered absenteeism, it's lowered turnover. So many of them like the living wage.

ST. JOHN: I was at the City Council meeting where it was passed in 2005, and it was really a coup for the labor community. I wonder how you see it affecting the election this year.

WILSON: Well, it's not November yet, so we don't know how it's going to happen. This is about working people, this is a labor issue, it's about people being able to make ends meet in a high-cost community of the it's expensive to live here. And so this really helps everyone.

ST. JOHN: I think you're making a very good point because we all know that economically, San Diego is generating jobs, but many of them are low-paying jobs, especially in the visitors' industry. That's one of the very industry where that's a bit of an issue. Are these jobs actually enough to survive in San Diego? So I guess you could say that the living wage ordinance is something that the city has -- a step the city has taken to make sure the people who are living and work other in the city can survive here. If you're on minimum wage -- have you done an analysis of how easy it is to survive in San Diego on the minimum wage?

WILSON: Well, if you look at what a full-time minimum wage worker makes, that's less than $17,000 a year. Think of how much we all pay in rent. That's nearly impossible to make ends meet. Really this is important, the living wage is important. It's a good step. The latest government figures, which there's always a bit of a lag, but in 2010, 17.4% of San Diego County residents were living in poverty. And it's been increasing over time. And I -- I think that it's probably going to continue to get worse because of things like the unemployment rate, and us replacing good jobs with low-paying jobs.

ST. JOHN: When you say you think this is a misunderstanding on the part of ConViz, can you be a little bit more specific about what it is that you think may have happened?

WILSON: Let me say that it's a belief or a hope of mine that it's a misunderstanding and it's easily remedied.

ST. JOHN: But it's part of some kind of agreement --

WILSON: It's part of an agreement. Last week at the San Diego Convention Center corporation board meeting, the contract that was brought forward by ConViz did actually have a clause in it saying that they believe that they were exempt from paying the living wage. And that is why --

ST. JOHN: That's why raised the red flags.


ST. JOHN: So that's why you had the press conference today.


ST. JOHN: Okay, good. Now, are what about people who say that, you know, San Diego is one of the few cities that has a living wage, and it's anticompetitive, it's a burden on the city because -- I'm just throwing this out as a question to see how you respond, that taxpayers are having to pay more for contracts to be fulfilled at the city? I hear these arguments a lot. How would you respond to that?

WILSON: First of all, someone who is living in poverty is not a taxpayer. So if we're actually talking about getting money circulates, you want people to make enough that they're not just making ends meet but they're actually able to pay taxes. Furthermore, the city did an evaluation of the living wage and its cost to the city. And they found that the total cost of the contracts and the administration and enforcement of the living wage is actually less than one tenth of 1% of the total city budget. So is that really an argument when we're lifting people out of poverty and giving them the ability to really pay their bills?

ST. JOHN: Okay. That's an argument I guess that it might actually be more expensive to be paying for benefits, which people who are at the bottom end of the spectrum qualify for benefit, which the bill is also footed by the taxpayer.

WILSON: Exactly.

ST. JOHN: So it's better to pay them a living wage where they can support themselves. I had one more question about healthcare reform. We have the healthcare reform act coming in whereby all employers may be obliged to -- everybody may have the right to have health insurance. So explain to us how healthcare comes in under the living wage.

WILSON: The way that healthcare comes in under the living wage is there's a standard wage, which this year is actually $11.47 per hour, and then there is a wage differential, a little bit more that's tacked on for the employer to use toward the healthcare premium if they offer healthcare. If they do not offer healthcare, then that goes into the employee's paycheck, so they can then try to access healthcare on the open market, which when the affordable care act is implemented,

Will be the healthcare exchanges so that people that do not receive it through their employer can then buy it on their own. So that would actually enable these employees to access healthcare when they may not have been able to afford it on their own previously.

ST. JOHN: So it actually dove tails quite nicely with the affordable care act.

WILSON: I think it would, yes.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Anything else you'd like to add?

WILSON: No, thank you so much.

ST. JOHN: Thanks for joining us.