In a sudden reversal, Mayor Dennis Archer declared his opposition last week to the proposed Living Wage Ordinance on the Nov. 4 ballot. The proposal would raise wages paid by employers that receive city contracts or city-administered grants of more than $50,000.
Archer had previously said he supported the measure because higher wages would attract better workers.
The ordinance would require such employers to pay $7.70 an hour plus health insurance, or $9.62 without insurance. Archer said raising wages would hurt nonprofit human service agencies and the people they serve --"our children in need, our senior citizens, our homeless." These would include, for example, Southwest Detroit Community Mental Health Service; Interim House, for victims of domestic abuse; and Casa Maria, which helps troubled teenagers.
Archer's spokesman Anthony Neely said he was not aware of any nonprofit agencies whose directors had called the mayor to complain about the ordinance. It was the city's Law Department, he said, that noticed the proposed language.
On Oct. 22, Archer asked the City Council to pass a different living wage ordinance that would exclude the human service organizations. In a letter, Archer asserts that some small contractors -- among them minority-owned businesses -- have said they could be forced out of business. Council declined to take up the issue, noting that the proposal's provisions had been public for some time.
Councilmember Maryann Mahaffey says the mayor's professed concern for the nonprofits is actually a reaction to pressure from the chamber of commerce, which strenuously opposes the ordinance. She informed the mayor's office, she says, that most nonprofits are already paying a living wage and health benefits, citing examples.
In its presentation to the council the next day, the mayor's office did not mention nonprofits but rather the adverse effect on Head Start, which is a federal program. According to Mahaffey, Head Start is already covered under federal "prevailing wage" legislation, "so they had to be reacting to the chamber, because if they'd done any kind of analysis they wouldn't have used Head Start as an example."
Linda Bernard, president of Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Services, said the ordinance would be "devastating" for agencies such as hers that employ young people. She estimates she hires 70 to 80 young people for after-school and summer jobs at the minimum wage, $5.15 an hour; ex-offenders training to be paralegals make $6.
"It would frankly mean some layoffs," she said.
Amy Good, director of Alternatives for Girls (AFG), said her agency pays the mandated amount to almost all staffers, plus benefits. AFG works with homeless teenagers. Good said the ordinance would aid in AFG's work, because a chief goal is helping clients find self-supporting jobs. "A living wage would help them support themselves in a healthy and safe way," Good said.
The AFL-CIO, which collected the signatures to put the measure on the ballot, is not backing off. Said spokeswoman Joyce Lartigue, "People who work deserve a living wage regardless of who they work for."
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