Archive for Friday, April 6, 2001

Living wage proponents unveil ordinance plan

Alliance proposes $9.14 per hour

April 6, 2001


Companies that receive economic incentives from the city would have to pay their employees about $9.14 per hour under the first draft of an ordinance unveiled by the Kaw Valley Living Wage Alliance.

The draft comes to light just as a task force is closely examining the city's policy for granting tax breaks to new and expanding businesses.

"It provides a framework that, if we take tax abatements seriously, provides some standards the community could accept," said Paul Fairchild, a member of the alliance, late last month.

But opponents say the ordinance, if enacted, could have unintended consequences.

"I, as much as anybody, want to see somebody receive a fair wage for a job well-performed," said Bill Sepic, executive director of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. "But I think this is driving at it through the wrong means."

Discussion of a "living wage" began last year, when American Eagle Outfitters sought tax breaks to locate a warehouse in Lawrence. The company said it would start out offering a starting wage of $8.50 an hour too low, critics said.

Highlights of the proposal:

l Businesses that receive city incentives such as loans, grants, tax abatements, tax increment financing, lease abatements or assistance procuring land at less-than-fair-market value would be subject to the ordinance.

l Those businesses would be required to pay their employees an hourly wage equal to 130 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three about $9.14 an hour. The pay would increase each year according to federal cost-of-living adjustments.

l Businesses could receive partial exemptions by providing child care during working hours, off-site job-training programs to make employees more marketable or health-care benefits.

"They're not going to get rich," alliance member Dave Cade said of workers being paid the proposed wage. "But I think it's a hedge against more low-paying jobs we just don't need anymore."

Sepic said any living wage proposal could hurt the people it's designed to help. For instance, he said, the ordinance could apply to the assistance given to bring a new grocery store to town.

"All their employees, regardless of whether they're students, would have to be paid the wage," Sepic said. The company would probably pass that cost on to its customers, he said, or possibly trim its employee roster to stay within budget.

Sepic said the city could better help workers with public transit, child care, education and enforcement against deadbeat parents.

Any proposal will have to get approval from the Lawrence City Commission. Mayor Jim Henry said in late March that he wouldn't want to deal with the matter while his task force on tax abatements is doing its work.

"I don't want to get something started that's going to muddy the waters," he said.

Fairchild said alliance members may continue to tweak the draft before formally submitting it to the commission. He said the idea is getting little support because people haven't been educated.

"Until we have done that, I wouldn't expect a lot of support, because there's not a lot of understanding," he said. "This is fairly new."

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