Progressive Local Government for the 21st Century

Wages and Benefits

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The Problems & Progressive Local Solutions

In this time of rising economic inequality local communities can take a high road development strategy by raising local labor standards. An essential first step in this process is to set local floors on the wages and benefits workers receive. These floors help boost the local economy as low wage families have been found to spend their new earnings locally and even benefit local employers who have found their turnover costs drastically reduced.

There are three essential components for local governments to set effective local wage and benefits standards. First, communities must set effective floors and provide robust enforcement. Second, is setting holistic benefits standards which provide for healthy families and communities. Third, is aligning these standards with government purchasing and contracts ensuring local money is only spent on high road employers.

Available Local Levers & Targets of Reforms

The original living wage laws focused on local government spending and contracting. While this remains a crucial issue subsequent rounds of reform have focused on city wide wage and benefits floors. This can be challenging as the legal standing for local wage floors is less clear in some jurisdictions than tackling the issue through government contracting. This brings up the crucial challenge of tackling local preemption which the ProGov21 database contains a wealth of resources on fighting for home rule.

Beyond setting wage and benefits floors local jurisdictions can play a crucial role in enforcement.  Wage theft is a rampant issue for low wage workers and combating these abuses can have just as big of an impact for workers as raising the minimum wage. Cities like New York City have empowered local District Attorney’s to treat wage theft and health and safety violations as criminal violations. This has even resulted in violating employers serving jail time. Similarly, New York City has also established their own labor enforcement agencies which supplement state efforts and engage in targeted proactive enforcement.

Current Reforms & Tools to Fight for Them

The most important thing local governments can do to support working families in their communities is to institute a living wage, such as this Berkeley, CA, living wage ordinance. The ProGov21 database has resources to help your community construct and advocate for a living wage that meets your local needs. We have a large number of example and model laws in the database from all over the country including Los Angeles 2014, San Francisco 2014, Sacramento 2015, and Minneapolis 2005 to list just a few.

The ProGov21 database has numerous resources to help advocate for a living wage. In particular the UC Berkeley Labor Center has produced this guide that walks you through the data and methods you would need to calculate the impact of a living wage law on your workers, community, and businesses. This massive 2014 landmark study from the Berkeley Labor Center evaluated every local wage ordinance in the country. Our materials are not limited to the coasts and include a wealth of resources from around the country including this report from Ohio Policy Matters on the potential impact of a $15 minimum wage on Ohio communities.

In addition to a broad wage floor many communities have used government contracting and the governments’ purchasing power to raise wage standards. Ensuring local government spending and contracts only go to firms which pay a living wage and benefits is a path often chosen by cities and counties in states where their ability to pass a local minimum wage is preempted. ProGov21 has many examples of responsibility contracting laws such as these from Philadelphia 2005, Milwaukee 2014, and Portland, OR 2018. The Portland ordinance not only sets wage floors but also includes provisions promoting environmentally sustainable practices and union rights. The ProGov21 database also has research and reports on responsible contracting such as this overview from the National Employment Law Project and this one from the Center for American Progress.

Progressive governments must designing effective enforcement regimes for these new laws. The ProGov21 database has useful examples and research to support designing an enforcement program. For examples of wage theft and employment enforcement laws see the San Francisco Wage Theft Ordinance as well as similar ordinances in Miami  and St. Petersburg, Florida. We also have a wealth of research to help support these efforts such as these guides from the National Employment Law Project on creating labor standards enforcement regimes and tools for city wage and hour enforcement. We also have local cases studies such as this Policy Maters Ohio report and this review of minimum wage enforcement in California from the UCLA Labor Center.

Taking it to the Next Level

After the initial round of living wage laws cities have subsequently revised them to include provisions for health benefits, such as this updating of the Los Angeles living wage law. We have a number of examples of such new laws including from Chicago and Jersey City. We also have policy guides and research from the SiX Action Network and the Bell Policy Center.

Cities are starting to pay greater attention to connecting wage and benefits considerations to their economic development strategy. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy has researched and created model policies around labor standards in Community Benefits Agreements. Please see our guide to LAANE’s materials in our database to learn more about their CBA work. Another good example of attaching labor standards to economic development is Chicago’s Big Box Ordinance. We also have policy guides on generating community benefits from economic development from the Partnership for Working Families and Good Jobs First.

Helpers & Allies

The following organizations, whose materials can be found in ProGov21, provide invaluable support in pushing these issues:

  • The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy has helped write numerous local wage and benefits ordinances as well as conducted important research of community benefits agreements. They have also done a lot of interesting work on creating good green jobs.
  • The Mayor’s Innovation Project provides a wealth of resources for cities pursuing a high road development strategy as well as a network to learn and share with.