Making a Living Wage in Los Angeles

Los Angeles was one of the first cities to enact a so-called living wage law in 1997. The law requires companies that do business with the city — such as airport restaurants or parking lots — must pay workers at least $9.08 per hour with health benefits, or $10.33 without. The law currently covers 10,000 workers. Robin Urevich profiles one worker making a "living wage."

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. According to the Economic Policy Institute, nearly one-half of Americans now live in states that require wages higher than the nine-year-old federal minimum wage of $5.50. But in other states, the federal minimum wage is still the standard. Advocates say this so-called living wage helps lift people out of poverty. Critics say hiking the minimum wage pushes low skilled workers out of the market and punishes small businesses. Coming up, two economists look at the issue.

But first, the struggle to make ends meet. Los Angeles was one of the first cities to enact a living wage law in 1997. Some companies that do business with the city, like airport restaurants and parking lots, must pay workers at least $9.08, with health benefits. The law covers 10,000 workers. Reporter Robin Urevich introduces us to one of them.

ROBIN UREVICH reporting:

On this day, 56-year old Maria Mosquerra(ph) is at home doing chores and tending to her pet bird.

(Soundbite of Maria Mosquerra talking to her bird)

UREVICH: Most days, Mosquerra is on the job at L.A. International Airport. She's one of the people you see pushing wheelchair bound passengers or shepherding kids traveling alone through the airport. She loves her job. But before L.A.'s living wage law kicked in, she was making California's minimum wage, $5.75 at the time. She and her husband, a welder, were raising three teenage boys, counting their pennies and barely scraping by.

Ms. MARIA MOSQUERRA (Worker, L.A. Airport): And then with the living wage ordinance I think everything changed. It was like $2.50 more per hour, and then some of the things we couldn't afford before we started to afford.

UREVICH: One of those things was their own home in a working class suburb just south of downtown L.A. Maria shows off the living and dining room, still new looking, with gleaming white paint and fresh carpet.

Ms. MOSQUERRA: And the house has three bedrooms upstairs; there's a little garden. It's not very... (laughter)

UREVICH: Oh, show me the garden.

Ms. MOSQUERRA: Well, we need to fix too many things, because this is a small area. But for us it's more than enough.

UREVICH: Three years ago, Maria, her husband and one of their grown sons pooled their incomes and applied for a mortgage. She says that if it weren't for the living wage, about 5,000 additional dollars a year, the family wouldn't have qualified.

Ms. MOSQUERRA: I couldn't believe it when they called us and they said, you got the house. Oh, my goodness, it was hard for me to believe. Thank God, thanks to the living wage, and thanks to my sons and my husband.

UREVICH: The 10,000 workers covered by L.A.'s living wage are a tiny fraction of the city's low wage work force. And $10.00 an hour has barely lifted most of them out of poverty. Still that's a huge accomplishment, says Madeline Janis-Aparicio, who heads the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, the group that led the living wage fight. And she says the campaign has also had a broader impact.

Ms. MADELINE JANIS-APARICIO (Executive Director, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy): What the living wage has done and the movement for a living wage is really lift up this idea that we have to be paying people at least enough to survive. And so even Republicans like Governor Schwarzenegger are acknowledging that we need to raise up the minimum wage. Even the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, for example, has agreed that we need to raise the minimum wage somewhat.

UREVICH: Indeed, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to raise the state minimum wage to $7.75. Nine years ago, L.A.'s living wage law faced fierce opposition from business groups who argue that companies would lay off workers or even close up shop if they were forced to pay the living wage. That didn't happen, says one living wage opponent, economist Jack Keyser. Still he argues, rules and regulations like the living wage hamper private business and ultimately hurt the working poor.

Mr. JACK KEYSER (Economist): Maybe the best way to do it is to look at how we can be very, very friendly to business, grow your economy, create somewhat of a labor shortage, and then everybody gets an increase, because they have to pay more to attract workers.

UREVICH: One thing both sides agree, the living wage law has done little to encourage employers to provide health insurance, even though it allows them to pay $1.25 less if they provide benefits. Airport worker Maria Mosquerra says a major illness could wipe out the security she now enjoys. Still as she holds her first grandchild, nine-month old Kevin, on her lap, she says she has high hopes for the future. Kevin is going to college someday, she says, and maybe she'll be able to help pay for it.

For NPR News, I'm Robin Urevich in Los Angeles.

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