Miami Beach launched, then ignored, living wage ordinance for its workers

David Smiley
January 29, 2010
Miami Herald

Miami Beach — When Miami Beach became the first Florida city to pass a living-wage law in 2001, the legislation was hailed as a progressive move toward guaranteeing all full-time workers pay that would put them at or over the federal poverty line.

But these days, discussion of the city's law evokes words like ``sad'' and ``shocked.''

That's because for nearly nine years, Miami Beach has ignored the part of its law that requires the living wage be updated every year, leaving the lowest-paid employees of the city and city contractors at an hourly rate dollars below what it should be under the city ordinance.

A Jan. 26 memo from City Manager Jorge Gonzalez says the living wage established by the 2001 law -- equal to that of Miami-Dade County -- should today be $11.36 an hour for employees receiving benefits. As of Jan. 28, it remained at $8.56.

``It's embarrassing,'' Commissioner Deede Weithorn said during the Finance and Citywide Projects committee meeting Jan. 26. ``We should just tell everyone that we don't have a living wage here, just minimum wage.''

The committee broached the topic of raising the wage amid pressure from the Service Employees International Union on behalf of employees for the city's security contractor. Also on Jan. 26, attorney Jose Javier Rodriguez of Florida Legal Services sent a letter to Gonzalez, saying legal action would be taken should the wage not be increased by Feb. 10.

Under the 2001 law, the city must update its living wage yearly, according to cost-of-living increases determined by the Consumer Price Index, unless directed otherwise by the city commission. However, Gonzalez acknowledged that no commission ever directed the city not to update the living wage rate.

When Commissioner Jonah Wolfson asked why it was never updated, Gonzalez initially raised his palms and shrugged. Gonzalez, who did not return calls requesting further comment, said later in the meeting that the failure to act was by ``omission'' and was not done on purpose.

The ordinance only applies to workers hired by the city, its contractors and subcontractors. It does not apply to businesses whose contracts with the city are worth less than $100,000.

Even with the failure to update the living wage, the city-mandated hourly rate of $8.56 is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Many of the city's elected offi cials, including Mayor Matti Herrera Bower, the lone lawmaker who was around in 2001 when the law passed, say the recent concern over the living wage is the first they have heard of it. However, Gus Lopez, procurement director for the city, said during the Jan. 26 meeting that attorneys with Florida Legal Services had raised the issue in the past with both the administration and elected officials.

The lapse has been highlighted at a troublesome time. The city has cut nearly $50 million from its budget during the last three years and city leaders say more cuts are coming. Also, the city is still banking on union concessions to fill a gap of some $3.5 million in this year's budget.

The city estimates that raising the living wage to $11.36 in one swoop could cost as much as $1.9 million during the next 12 months, according to the Gonzalez memo.

``I can't possibly imagine getting through this budget seasonwithout raising taxes'' if the living wage is raised, Wolfson said during the Jan. 26 meeting, warning that paying more than $11 an hour for all jobs could ``artificially inflate'' the worth of some services.

Other concerns were mentioned, such as the potential that a high living wage could dissuade competition among contractors or lead contractors to fire employees yearly to keep wages at the lowest possible level.

No decision was reached. Weithorn and others asked the city to prepare figures on the cost of increasing the living-wage in phases -- something SEIU representative Eric Brakken was amenable to -- as well as estimating the amount of money the city saved by leaving the living wage at $8.56 all these years.

``Everyone is committed to do it,'' Weithorn said of raising the wage. ``The question is whether to do it in steps or not.''