Slavery Is Over; City Employees Deserve a Living Wage

New Orleans Fire” by Sean Davis is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

It’s been more than 150 years since President Lincoln ended slavery but that doesn’t mean some city employees don’t have to work two or three jobs to support their families. They are often renters, not homeowners. They surely can’t afford to send their kids to private schools. For most, vacations longer than an occasional weekend on the Gulf Coast just aren’t in the budget. Some might even receive food stamps or other government assistance.

Who is to blame for the low salaries many classified employees earn? Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the New Orleans City Council.  

Anyone who googles “Mayor Cantrell/ Living Wage” will only find press releases dated in the last two weeks. Since Cantrell was elected mayor, researchers say she has never approached the Civil Service Commission to increase the salaries of classified employees.   

Yet Cantrell and the council have given themselves raises in recent years. Unclassified city employees – those who serve at the will of the elected official – have it much better. Their appointing authority can set and raise salaries independently. More than a handful of unclassified city employees earn in excess of $100,000 annually. Not bad pay if you can get it, but the vast majority of classified employees cannot.

Who are the city’s classified employees? They are the clerks and department receptionists or secretaries; the men and women who process your tax payments or issue your permits. They tend the playgrounds and neutral grounds; mow the lawns; spray for mosquitoes, patch the potholes; mop the floors, and clean out the catch basins. They fight the fires, drive the ambulances and try to keep the neighborhoods safe.

Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu negotiated a raise for NOPD officers not long before his term ended. Firefighters were not so lucky. Though the NOFD has a good pension system in place, litigation against the city over back pay kept them off the pay raise list. It is truly amazing that the men and women who risk their lives battling blazes every day don’t earn $15 an hour.      

The “Fight For 15” has been going on for several years. It is finally gaining momentum, due in part to the pandemic. Workers have more options and are demanding respect along with higher salaries and better working conditions. Employers really have no choice but to change their old way of thinking.

President Biden signed an executive order in April that will raise the minimum wage paid by federal contractors to $15 per hour.  City Council is on a similar path.  

It’s all good and well for the council to mandate that city contractors phase in a $15 per hour wage over the next few years. That won’t really impact the majority of workers in New Orleans. They are employed by the private sector. How can City leaders even think the business community (outside of city contractors) would establish a $15 minimum wage if City Hall does not lead by example? Without broad private sector participation, New Orleans’ overall economy will never improve. 

Some naysayers believe that the Mayor and Council are only articulating support for a $15 per hour salary minimum because it is an election year. Though Councilmember Brossett has worked on this issue several years, credit must be given to groups like Step Up! Louisiana/Work NOLA and Stand for continuing to push forward.      

The mechanics of implementing a pay raise through Civil Service might not be easy. If the goal is to give every classified employee a raise, that is relatively simple to accomplish.  If the intent is to raise up only those at the bottom (currently earning less than the $15 threshold), the salaries of those already at $15 would also need to be adjusted upwards so that bumping some employees out of existing jobs does not occur.

The second major issue is how the raises will be paid for.  The overall city budget must be balanced according to law. Usually when one city agency or department receives additional funding during the fall budget process, another receives less funding. In this case, Mayor Cantrell will have new one-time federal dollars that might cover the costs for one or two budget cycles. What would happen in succeeding years is unknown. Annual cost-of-living increases should also be factored in.  

Brossett is correct when he says that the new living wage of $15 per hour would positively impact the quality of life of all City of New Orleans employees and their families. Why did it take so long for him, the Mayor Cantrell and other councilmembers to come to this conclusion?  That’s why it’s called politics.

Help Keep Big Easy Magazine Alive

Hey guys!

Covid-19 is challenging the way we conduct business. As small businesses suffer economic losses, they aren’t able to spend money advertising.

Please donate today to help us sustain local independent journalism and allow us to continue to offer subscription-free coverage of progressive issues.

Thank you,
Scott Ploof
Big Easy Magazine

Share this Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *