Aiming to stop Pittsburgh government from subsidizing "poverty-level jobs," a coalition of labor, environmental, religious and community organizations joined City Council members yesterday to propose wage floors for certain workers on city-backed development projects and contracts.
The legislation is the first of a planned package of bills characterized as development reforms that would also touch on community input, environmental impact, affordable housing and the distribution of funds to low-income communities.
It's likely to spark "a contentious fight," said Gabe Morgan, Western Pennsylvania director of Service Employees International Union local 32BJ. But in his view, it's worth fighting. "If the people working in [city-backed] developments made a better standard of living from their employers, that would generate higher tax revenue for the city."
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he's "concerned about what it would do to community development in Pittsburgh."
His point man on development, Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Rob Stephany, said it was "the kind of thing that might prompt somebody to go build in Millvale" instead of the city.
If the legislation passed, any building service, food service, hotel and grocery workers at big, city-backed developments would have to get wages, benefits and time off that matched the average offered to their peers in the city. Development projects of more than 100,000 square feet, or grocery stores of more than 30,000 square feet, that get $100,000 or more of city grants, favorable loans, financing, infrastructure help or discounted land would be subject to the rule.
"If we give a public subsidy to people and allow them to pay people a minimum wage, you're also dragging down the wage of others" in their industry, said Council President Doug Shields, prime sponsor of the legislation. "You're just continually dumbing down the standard of living" by subsidizing low-wage employers.
Mr. Stephany said there's no evidence that the city is spurring businesses that pay lower-than-average wages. Meanwhile, recipients of various forms of city aid have to pledge to create jobs, hire low-income residents, involve minority-owned and women-owned businesses, consult with the community, use environmentally friendly construction techniques, and pay builders prevailing wages.
The proposed legislation would be more onerous than those requirements because it would place a long-term wage requirement on the tenants of developments, Mr. Stephany said. The Bakery Square development in Larimer and a long-sought Hill District grocery store would not happen if a never-ending wage requirement were in place, he said.
Mr. Morgan said that asking an employer benefitting from a subsidy to pay what similar firms are paying shouldn't be crippling. After all, prevailing wages are a reflection of the labor market, he said.
"If you're going to give someone millions of dollars, then asking them to uphold higher standards is fair, in return for the handout," he said. "Pay the basic standard that's been broadly agreed on in the private sector to ensure that workers are able to make a decent living in these targeted industries."
The legislation would also cover city contractors. Security guard Ed Millender said he earned $9 an hour manning the City-County Building metal detectors, lost that job when the city changed contractors, then was brought back later at $8 an hour. He has to work a side job to make ends meet and just wants "a little bit more than I'm making."
Rich Lord can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1542.