Wednesday 8 June 2022 by Jo Clifton
Members of the city’s Living Wage Working Group on Tuesday called on the City Council to raise the city’s living wage to $22 an hour for the upcoming fiscal year. They said the pay should apply to all regular and temporary city employees, except for summer youth program employees, regardless of position or number of hours worked.
Council members Vanessa Fuentes, Ann Kitchen, Chito Vela, Kathie Tovo and Pio Renteria have already signed a resolution on the June 16 agenda calling on the city manager to introduce a $22/hour living wage in next year’s budget .
The current living wage is $15 an hour and has not changed since 2018. The city government increased employee wages to $15 in 2015 on the recommendation of the Living Wage Working Group.
The human resources department convened the working group again this year and asked for recommendations on a living wage. According to staff calculations, providing a minimum wage of $22 would cost the city between $18.2 million and $22.8 million, not including police wages.
Carol Guthrie, executive director of AFSCME Local 1624, told the council during its working session that it was time to increase wages so the city could meet the demands of the public and its own employees. With inflation, gas prices and rising housing costs, Austin city employees are suffering and underpaid, she said.
While the city raised its minimum wage to $15 in 2018, it failed to raise that amount further, which should have been $16.83 the following year.
According to filings provided by the city, the city had more than 2,474 job openings at the end of April, compared to about 1,559 on May 1, 2019. The job openings include 78 at Austin Resource Recovery, 266 at Austin Energy and 96 in Public Works, 237 at Aviation, 133 at Parks and Recreation, 357 at Police, 198 at Emergency Medical Services, and 126 Firefighters.
City employees are suffering, Guthrie said, with some working so much overtime that they’ve injured themselves and ended up on the disabled list.
City leaders did not foresee the pandemic, nor did they foresee the freeze. “And those added stressors have played a big part in where we are today. But there must be something. We need more workers. We cannot hire workers. Those who work here – they’re done, they’re used up. they need your help We have to be competitive. We need to raise wages for these workers.” The private sector is now hiring at $20 an hour, Guthrie said, and the city is unable to keep up.
Rachel Melendes of UNITE HERE, the union representing some airport workers, said working at the airport is “too stressful. They’re overwhelmed,” she said, noting that many airport workers arrive at 3:30 a.m. and leave at noon. “And despite their hard work, they are unable to support their families on city wages.”
Workers Defense’s Fabiola Barreto said her group observed that “the people who build the city don’t reap any of the benefits. They’re moving to Buda and Kyle” because they can’t afford to live in Austin.
To make matters worse, every council member is aware of the fact that, by state law, they can’t levy taxes above 3.5 percent without voter consent.
Council member Natasha Harper-Madison spoke in favor of the wage proposal. She said she is telling people in her district that if prices go higher, they should be ready to move out of Austin. It’s better than waiting for rent to be missed, she said.
Councilor Alison Alter told colleagues she would support a wage increase but could not commit to a specific number. She said: “The competitiveness of our workforce is a top priority.”
Kitchen said her goal is to reach $22, as recommended by the working group. She said it’s especially important that the public understand the compromises city government may have to make in order to pay the amount workers need. She told City Manager Spencer Cronk, “Bring us to $22. If you can’t get us down to $22…tell us why.”
Guthrie told that Austin Monitor after the meeting that she and other members of the working group would be at next week’s council meeting to push for the adoption of the $22-an-hour resolution. However, she said she was concerned that the task force went to so much trouble seven years ago to tell the city to raise wages, but its recommendations were not implemented after the city raised the living wage to $15 -dollar had raised.
Guthrie said she and others are ready to fight for her wage proposal. In addition to AFSCME, other group members include representatives from Central Texas Interfaith, Workers Defense Project, Laborers’ International Union 1095, IBEW Local 520, Austin Chapter of General Contractors, Plumbers Local 286, Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Austin LGBT Chamber , UNITE HERE, Local Progress, Texas Antipoverty Project and the Equal Justice Center.
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