After a round of fiery debate, the Metro Council Tuesday night adopted a new living wage for some of Metro’s lowest paid employees.
By voting for the same resolution, which is part of Mayor Karl Dean’s now-approved $1.52 billion budget, the council also approved a one-time, across-the-board 2 percent salary bonus for government employees, capped at $2,000 each. The bonus replaces an incremental pay plan for city employees that had been established years ago, but was never implemented.
Despite a handful of council members who complained Dean’s administration tucked the living-wage initiative into the larger pay plan, the resolution passed easily by a vote of 31-7 with one abstention.
At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry, the sponsor of the living-wage plan pushed by Dean, said the initiative is rooted in the principle that Metro shouldn’t pay full-time workers at levels that keep them in poverty.
“This is not about charity,” Barry said. “This is not about welfare, entitlement or creeping socialism. It is simply a recognition that the lowest level wage we currently pay as a municipal employer is not enough to live on with dignity and independence.”
But the scope of the new living-wage plan, which raises the minimum wage for city employees to $10.77 per hour, is limited. Only 14 Metro employees will actually see their salaries increase under the plan. By approving the resolution, council also requested that another 150 Metro employees — mostly Metro General Hospital workers — have their salaries increased. The request isn’t binding, however.
The Metro employee who stands to enjoy the biggest salary jump with the new minimum wage already makes $10.42 per hour; hence, a raise of 35 cents per hour is on the way. The new living-wage standard adds $7,300 to Metro’s budget for the next fiscal year.
“It’s meaningless,” said Councilwoman Emily Evans, who actually voted for the plan. “Fourteen people and $7,300 in lieu of a new pay plan for 10,000 employees. That’s what we’re doing.”
Most of seven council members who voted against the minimum wage hike, the majority self-described fiscal conservatives, decried the fashion in which the living-wage plan was grouped together with the separate 2 percent bonus plan.
“It’s the way that these were tied together,” said At-large Councilman Charlie Tygard, who voted against the resolution. “I think it’s a brilliant move, a very smart move, because it almost makes those of us that vote no vote against employees of this government.”
Others like Councilman Jim Gotto called the minimum wage hike a “fiscally irresponsible step” and warned of the slippery slope it could set.
“I’ve heard it said, ‘Oh, this only affects a few employees,’ ” Gotto said. “Well, if it only affects a few, why are we taking this step? I submit to you, I think this is the first step. The next step will be to require all vendors that do business with Metro government to pay the living wage. The next step after that will be to require all businesses operating in Davidson County to pay the living wage.”
But in the end, strong voices of opposition didn’t result in a significant coalition of votes.
“I just can’t imagine this city not wanting to pay a decent wage,” said Councilwoman Edith Langster, who supported the plan. “These people are working people. They’re not asking for anything free. They’re just asking to be treated fairly.”
Council members who voted against the pay-plan resolution were Michael Craddock, Eric Crafton, Duane Dominy, Robert Duvall, Randy Foster, Gotto and Tygard. Councilwoman Karen Bennett abstained.