Groups continue to fight the living wage battle

It is not uncommon to see Haitian women, some of them dressed in the white nurse uniforms, running for the No. 35 bus on Church Avenue in the early morning, when the sky is still that dark blue slowly giving way to light.

For 15 years, Lerette Cazeau has been one of those women, rushing before daybreak to catch the train to an elderly or sick person’s home. Once inside the house and after washing their hands, the women cook breakfast, wash the patient, change their bed-sheets, do their laundry when necessary—sometimes daily—take them to the doctor, pick up their medication from the pharmacy and take them out for walks, among other tasks.

“It’s hard work. You have to have a lot of patience,” Cazeau said. “Some of these people don’t have families or parents. It’s up to you to care for them.”

Cazeau is one of thousands of city workers who would gain if the New York City Council passes a bill to tie their minimum wage to the financial breaks their employers receive from the city and the state. Known as the living wage bill, it would, if passed, have a significant impact on not only the workers’ paychecks, but their quality of life and reduce pressure on city service agencies that they rely on for assistance.

The New York City Living Wage Coalition has been working on the bill that would force companies who have contracts with or are receiving certain economic benefits from the city to pay their workers more.

Home attendants would stand to gain the most if the City Council passes the proposed living wage law.

The city’s 50,000 home health and housekeeping workers is the largest group that would be affected out of an estimated 80,000 total workers, said Bertha Lewis, executive director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

Most of these home-health workers are women of color from other countries. The bill, introduced to the Council in March, states that increasing workers’ basic pay would alleviate the workload of social service agencies that families turn to for help.

“This would provide them with at least a decent wage,” Lewis said. “The only way to boost the economy is if people have money in their pockets.”

Samuel Nicholas, a Haitian community activist who testified before the New York City Council for the bill, said, “Right now, they’re living below poverty level. They can’t even pay their bills. So we’re not even talking a drastic change—just the necessities.” Nicholas is a member of the Haitian clergy group that belongs the to the coalition.

ACORN and New York Working Families Party formed the Living Wage Coalition about two years ago. Composed of about 250 organizations, including labor union, clergy and nonprofit groups, its goal is to have the city increase the living wage of the workers.

Lewis said the tax breaks, land, grants, and other special deals that contractors receive from the city should be passed on to their employees.

“[The coalition] has been growing and growing because people realize that people need decent wages,” Lewis said.

About 50,000 home attendants, predominantly immigrant women of color, are assigned by a home-care agencies to assist the elderly, persons with mental or physical disabilities, AIDS, cancer and other diseases.

Some homebound people might ask to be taken outside for fresh air while it is snowing, as one women’s elder patient demanded, by threatening to report the attendants to the agencies.

“When you do this job, you look at the person as someone in your own family having some difficulties,” said Yolette Thezar, a home attendant for 15 years. “Some of them are so annoying that your really have to watch that they don’t put you in trouble.”

In 1986, when Thezar and Cazeau started as home attendants, the city’s home care agencies paid $3.25 an hour. Health benefits were granted after joining the 1199 Service Employees International Union.

Thezar, who stopped working as a home attendant last year, said they got pay raises about every three years, which put most workers in the industry at just over $7 an hour a few years ago.

“Essentially, [the bill] stands for the principle that the city should not do business with employers who pay their employees less than a living wage,” the bill’s authors state.

If passed as proposed to the City Council a couple months ago, the law would increase the minimum wage to $8.10 an hour and provide health benefits for most employees for the first year that it goes in effect. Those who do not receive health benefits would be paid $9.60. Home attendants and housekeepers are paid $7.69 an hour, and their unions provide health insurance.

If the increases go as planned every year, the wage may reach $10 an hour, with health benefits included, by July 2006.

The bill recommends that the city comptroller increase the rate every year, based on the city’s cost of living, budget and economic condition.

After four years, the living wage would be indexed to inflation, meaning the wage would increase proportionally to that economic indicator. People who work at day care sites, (such as security guards, street cleaners and in the mailroom) are among those whose checks the living wage would boost.

Paul Sonn, associate counsel at New York University Law School Brennan Justice Center, a public policy research and analysis group, said that the living wage would never decrease.

Even if there is deflation, the living wage would remain at the highest level it reached during the periods of inflation.

“It only goes up,” he said. “It would make a big difference. It’s still not enough, but it would be better,” Cazeau said. “We have to put together with the union to make this happen.”

Patrick Gaspard, a spokesman for the New York State Council Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said the union has been fighting for the living wage since day one.

He said that although it is difficult to pinpoint the number of Haitian women home attendants in the union, there are thousands and that they have been for the wage increase.

Gaspard said that since the premise of the bill is that people will have more money to take care of their families, increasing their total take-home pay will help.

Lewis said the proposed law is sponsored by 44 of the council’s 51 members, including Speaker Gifford Miller, Chairman of the Committee on Governmental Operations Bill Perkins, and Chairman of the Committee on Government Contracts Robert Jackson.

Perkins and Jackson held the first of a series of hearings in April to hear testimony from the organizations asking for the bill, those who would be affected by it, and those who would implement it.

Another hearing has been scheduled for mid-July and the bill may be voted on by the end of the summer, said Gregory Heller, the living wage coordinator at ACORN.

The bill has met some resistance from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office during the March hearing.

The mayor’s representative said the city might lose contractors and companies it subsidizes if it mandates that they pay their workers more, Lewis said. They testified in April that the bill would cost the city more than $100 million. Comptroller Bill Thompson and the coalition estimate the cost at less than $10 million in its first years, Heller said.

Sonn said the discrepancy between the two figures is a result of the administration assuming a host of programs that the bill does not cover.

Repeated calls to the mayor’s office were not returned.

The New York Living Wage Coalition is one of several organizations demanding living wages in cities and states. Lewis said 85 bills have either been passed or are about to be passed by various states. She said some people are planning to draft a federal living wage bill.

“Everyone is confident [the bill] will pass. There are some fine-tuning problems,” Sonn said.

Gaspard is hesitant to predict whether the bill will pass, given their experience with lobbying and politicians. However, with positive signals from political officials such as the Council speaker, he is cautiously optimistic if the bill’s fate.

“Things look really good,” he said.

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