Opponents promised costly legal battles. Supporters described harsh living conditions for low-wage workers, and promised better times to come. Those horror stories of poverty won out over court costs.
County Board members received a standing ovation after voting 5-0 to adopt the county’s first living wage ordinance Saturday, June 28. Starting immediately, any contract for services at a county-owned or –controlled building, valued annually at $100,000 or more, will compel the contractor to pay its employees at least $10.98 an hour.
The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Virginia, a regional study, determined that hourly wage was the least a worker could receive in order to afford basic needs like food, housing and medical care, without public subsidies.
While the ordinance goes into effect immediately, not all county workers will see an immediate impact on their paychecks; the ordinance doesn’t apply to current contracts, so employees already working in county buildings won’t get a raise until their employers’ contracts are renewed.
DESPITE OPPOSITION from several conservative activists and from the Chamber of Commerce, a majority of the 31 speakers at Saturday’s board meeting supported the proposal.
Proponents of the new ordinance included numerous labor unions, churches, the Arlington Education Association and laborers currently working in county-owned buildings.
“I need more money to be able to support my family and be able to support myself better,” said Isabel Lara, who currently earns just $8 an hour as a supervisor at Arlington Mill Community Center.
Speaking through a translator, he spoke with pride about the hard work and long hours he puts in at his job, and the money he sends to his wife and extended family in his native El Salvador.
Others relied on translators at the board meeting, sometimes with embarrassment. “I have to work during the day and at night, sometimes on Saturdays too, and for that reason I haven’t been able to go study English, which I know I need very much,” said Francisco Velasquez, who has been working for a county contractor the last 14 years.
A 21-year resident of Arlington, Velasquez told board members his lack of English is a source of embarrassment when people ask how long he has lived in the country.
Lara and Velasquez aren’t alone, said fellow wage laborer Marie Flore. “There are a lot of people here who need to survive,” she said.
“I have two jobs because what I earn in one of them doesn’t allow me to survive,” said Fidel Hernandez, whose primary job is as a maintenance worker in a county building. Because he earns just $7 an hour, he must work 48 hours a week, plus 20 hours in another job. “I need a living wage,” said Hernandez.
BUT ROBERT MOLLEUR, a local conservative activist was vehement in his objection to the ordinance. “You’ve done well without a living wage,” he said, addressing board member Walter Tejada. “You used the free market to earn your success. Your community looks up to you as a self-made icon, as do I.”
What message does a vote for a living wage ordinance send to others, he asked: “That Latino contract workers can only succeed in Arlington with an Anglo-coerced handout?”
Rich Kelsey, an attorney running for County Board, urged current board members to reject the ordinance “not because it is ill-conceived, but because it is illegal.”
John Antonelli, a regular speaker at county meetings, compared the possible ramifications to the county’s failed attempt to institute and defend domestic partners legislation. “You lost in court then; you will lose in court again,” said Antonelli.
Board members also heard opposition from the Chamber of Commerce. Steve Barto, the Chamber’s chairman-elect, agreed that county staffers had not done sufficient research to prove the merits of the proposal.
“If you believe that there is an underpaid working class… and if you believe that the county should spend in excess of $600,000 annually in an attempt to help them,” Barto said, then the county should talk about exactly how many residents will benefit from the ordinance.
“You should also know whether or not there are alternative means of assistance of more help and that cost less money,” he said.
LIVING WAGE CONTROVERSY stems mainly from an opinion written by Jerry Kilgore, the state attorney general.
“It is my opinion that a ‘living wage’ requirement is unrelated to the goods or services to be procured and, therefore, is not authorized under the Virginia Public Procurement Act,” Kilgore wrote in his Dec. 10, 2002, opinion. “Accordingly, a locality does not have the authority to require contractors to provide a ‘living wage’ to their employees as a condition to the award of a public contract.”
Kelsey and others cited said opinion shows the county will lose a court battle if a contractor decides to challenge the ordinance.
“[Kilgore] is an attorney, and the opinion is an opinion,” said board member Jay Fisette. “We have strong legal reasoning, and a very defensible position.”
The ordinance cites the Virginia Public Procurement Act, which allows local governments to consider the best value when conducting the competitive process for awarding contracts.
A LEGAL BATTLE could loom for the county, admitted Board member Chris Zimmerman. But getting the “best value” for public money, as defined by state law, lets Arlington decide what it wants to look for in a contractor.
“It’s not like we’re just making stuff up as we go along here. There is precedent,” he said, pointing to Alexandria living wage legislation adopted two years ago.
Zimmerman called Arlington’s new ordinance “an act of enlightened self-interest.”
Many speakers supported that position. “The public should not have to subsidize some employers’ shamefully low salaries,” said the Rev. Leonard Tuozzolo, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in South Arlington.
If companies pay their workers a living wage, workers become less dependent on government programs like Section 8 housing vouchers and food stamps, which in turn saves taxpayer dollars, supporters argue. Plus, companies that pay higher wages tend to keep more motivated workers.
“We need contractors who can attract and retain quality employees,” said County Manager Ron Carlee.