Living wage will help very few Metro workers

Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 11:45pm

Turns out Metro’s much ballyhooed living-wage plan affects 14 people, adds no more than 35 cents to any current city employee’s hourly wage, and jolts a meager $7,300 into the government’s new budget.

So why was there such a buildup, and what was with the fierce opposition?

Before approving a $1.52 billion budget for the fiscal year, the Metro Council spent much of last Tuesday’s meeting debating the merits of establishing a new minimum wage of $10.77 per hour for Metro employees.

It sounded pretty bold before the council learned that the lowest-paid employee to benefit from the plan already made $10.42 an hour. True, the current minimum wage for Metro employees had been $7.72 an hour. But that wage applied only to job grades, or classifications, that aren’t actually filled.

Nonetheless, most agreed a small pay increase for 14 individuals is better than none at all, and the resolution easily passed by a 31-7 margin, with one abstention.

The impetus behind the living-wage plan was Nashville’s affiliation with a national nonprofit called Jobs with Justice, whose mission is, in part, to advocate for a living wage, which the group determined to be $10.35 an hour, based on a 2008 report by Vanderbilt University professor Melissa Snarr.

The living wage proposal, endorsed by Mayor Karl Dean and carved into his budget, came before the council in a resolution sponsored by At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry.

“It’s not about the number of people that are affected,” Barry told The City Paper. “It’s about the principle that we, as a Metro government, would ever be paying a wage that didn’t allow folks to live with dignity and respect.”

But Councilwoman Emily Evans, who voted for the new plan despite calling the resolution “meaningless,” “tripe” and “worthless,” said the resolution was burdened with inappropriate political language.

“I think it was unfortunate that such a marginal pay increase for such a limited number of people would be characterized as a living-wage ordinance,” Evans said. “That was just an unfortunate choice of words.”

What irritated some council members, including Evans, is that historically, Metro employees have depended on what’s known as an incremental pay plan, whereby their salaries were supposed to increase periodically. Approving last week’s resolution traded the incremental plan for all Metro employees for a one-time, across-the-board 2 percent bonus. Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling has said the city currently lacks the funds to support the incremental pay plan.

Still, the modest scope of the living-wage plan didn’t stop the council’s pack of fiscal conservatives from venting their frustration.

“I’ve heard it said, ‘Oh, this only affects a few employees,’ ” Councilman Jim 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.”

In that case, perhaps the newly adopted living wage is a big deal after all.