A sanitation employee helps homeless people with their possessions in New Orleans in October 2017.
A sanitation employee helps homeless people with their possessions in New Orleans in October 2017. Gerald Herbert/AP

Because of Louisiana, the Minimum Wage in New Orleans Is a Poverty Wage

Around the World Day of Social Justice, we should consider why cities pay poverty wages, and why 28 states can preempt local efforts to raise the minimum wage.

This week, the United Nations noted a World Day of Social Justice, focused “on guaranteeing fair outcomes for all through employment, social protection, social dialogue, and fundamental principles and rights at work.” Here in the United States, one of the world’s richest countries, raising the minimum wage is the most directly effective measure we can take to guarantee fair outcomes by combatting poverty and economic insecurity.

In recent years, many states, counties, and cities across the country have decided to go that route. Unfortunately, many others are handcuffed when it comes to raising their minimum wage. In 28 states, including Louisiana, local governments are “preempted”—that is, banned—from setting their own minimum wage (23 states also preempt local governments from setting their own paid leave policies). In those states, even when there is local political will to raise the minimum wage—as there is here in New Orleans, where the mayor and six out of seven city council members have pledged support for a $15 minimum wage—local leaders can’t control their city’s economic fate.

These are two stories from low-wage earners in New Orleans, a city with a relative abundance of affordable housing, and low wages.

Living for the city, but barely living in it.

When Hurricane Katrina hit I was living in Seattle, working as a fisherman up along the Alaskan coast. It was hard work for good pay, but when I saw what was happening in New Orleans I felt moved to go there and help rebuild. So I went.

The devastation in New Orleans was hard to believe. I wanted to get to work, but I didn’t know where to start. Then I noticed that everywhere I looked I saw people from the city’s Parks and Parkways department out clearing trees, rebuilding, doing the kind of stuff I wanted to do.

I didn’t think I had much of a chance of getting hired—in Seattle, working for the city was a good job and there was a three-year waiting list—so I was surprised when I got a call three days after I applied. They told me they wanted to hire me right away. Then they told me what they paid: $7.50 per hour.

At first, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know you could get paid that little. But it wasn’t about the money for me. I just wanted to help. So I took the job. Now it’s 13 years later, and I’m 62 years old. I still work for Parks and Parkways, as a Big Equipment Operator, and I make $12.65 per hour. On that pay, I can only afford to live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans.

As the union representative for Parks and Parkways, I try to organize and fight for better working conditions for myself, my co-workers and, most importantly, the next generation. I love this city. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to believe that things will get better for its workers.” —Anthony Alefosio

According to the “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) Report” from the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, in New Orleans a “Survival Budget,” which is the bare minimum needed to cover basic necessities like housing, food, transportation and childcare, requires a single person to earn $11.09 per hour. It’s $17.32 per hour for a single parent with one child. An ALICE “Stability Budget,” which is enough for a worker and her family to have a small cushion for emergencies, but not enough to save and build wealth, requires $17.98 per hour for a single earner and $33.82 per hour for a single-parent with one child.

New Orleans also has the highest poverty rate among the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, the second highest level of income inequality, and one of the five highest crime rates. The private sector in New Orleans is subject to state minimum wage laws, but the city of New Orleans, and any other city, can decide to set whatever wage floor it thinks is right for the employees it directly hires or contracts to hire. The city could raise workers’s pay: It’s a matter of allocating the money in the city budget. New Orleans certainly isn't the only city in the U.S. that makes the decision to pay its own workers poverty or near-poverty wages that make it nearly impossible for those workers to earn enough to live in that city.

If New Orleans doesn’t pay their own employees enough to live a decent life in the city, what kind of precedent does that set for private businesses? If a government budget is a moral document, and a set of priorities, what does it say about our society’s morality when we allow the people who keep our cities running to live in poverty?

When you can barely afford to live.

“It’s hard to feel a sense of self-worth when you aren’t paid enough to afford to live. I think a lot of people look down on people like me who make low wages, but they don't understand how hard we work.

I like to work. For me, it's a coping mechanism to deal with past trauma. I came to New Orleans in 2015 when I aged out of foster care. Since then, I’ve worked a few different low-wage jobs. I even worked one job in rural Louisiana that paid me less than the minimum wage, just because I needed to work and earn something.

Until recently, I’ve been working at a fast-food chain, earning $8 an hour after getting a raise from $7.75. Then my baby was born prematurely due to pre-eclampsia (a pregnancy disorder caused by high blood pressure and hypertension). When I had to take additional time off when he got out of the NICU, I got fired. I’d been a good employee, and had only taken four of my six weeks of maternity leave when I first gave birth. I just wanted to use that other two weeks to care for my son when he got out of the hospital. That didn't matter. My boss said she had a business to run.

Every day I get up and try to plan out my day, figure out how I’m going to make it, whether I’m going to have to skip a meal, how I’m going to feed my son. I have to figure out how much my commute’s going to cost, and how much of my paycheck it’s going to eat up.

When you’re working two or three jobs at a time it’s so stressful. It will mentally, physically, and emotionally break you. That’s how I got health problems at just 22 years old. Sometimes it's so depressing that you start thinking about other ways to make money, ways that could get you in a lot of trouble. I don't want to be in that position. I just want to take care of myself and my son.”— Sharika Evans

While cities invest tremendous resources in crime enforcement, it would be more effective to invest in dealing with the issues that cause crime: low wages, poor education, and mental health issues.

New Orleans is a tourism- and hospitality-centric economy, and Sharika’s story is similar to the stories you hear from hospitality workers in the city. Tourism generates approximately $7.5 billion a year in revenue for the city, yet the workers who make the system run aren’t seeing their fair share. Instead, they see inconsistent incomes and public transit routes, but consistently rising rents (often driven by the explosive growth of short-term rentals) and cost-of-living.

The workers who New Orleans depends on are being pushed out of the city, with more than one-third of workers in the accommodation and food service industry making $1,250 a month or less, and another 25 percent making $1,250-$3,333 a month. To fight back against this tide, they’re organizing through unions like UNITE HERE! and the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Alliance to take back their power.

Louisiana is one of five states that doesn’t have a minimum wage, reverting to the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, and has the highest proportion of minimum-wage earners (5.3 percent) of any state in the U.S. This is despite the fact that raising the minimum wage is a wildly popular idea in the state, with multiple studies showing that 76 percent of the population supports an increase.

In all three years of his term so far, Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, has lobbied for a bill that would gradually raise the minimum wage to $8.50 over two years. That effort has failed each time in the face of staunch opposition from powerful lobbying groups like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) and the Louisiana chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), as well as the state GOP, which often seems more focused on denying Governor Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, a victory, than it is on the welfare of the state’s working people.

On March 31, 2016, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards testifies to the Senate labor committee in support of minimum wage increase and equal pay bills. Senator Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans looks on. (Melinda Deslatte/AP)

Even that small increase to $8.50, which is far from enough, would give a raise to 10 percent of the state’s workers, including 64,000 New Orleanians. More than 120,000 New Orleanians would see a raise if the minimum wage was increased to $12 an hour by 2020.

If the minimum wage was raised, it would enable workers to begin to escape poverty and its accompanying insecurities. This has been accomplished in some locations: For instance, in Arkansas, a neighboring state to Louisiana, voters recently elected to gradually increase their state’s minimum wage from $8.50 an hour to $11 an hour by 2021.

Given Louisiana’s long-standing poverty and crime problems, why are so many of the state’s lawmakers against raising the minimum wage? Why do minimum wage and paid leave preemption laws exist in the first place—i.e., where do they come from—and how did they get enacted in so many states?

In an era of extreme political and social division, with that divide regularly playing out in an urban versus rural dynamic, why do we keep these often disparate communities from making the economic decisions that fit their needs? Right now, this society is geared toward short-term profit and gains rather than long-term economic sustainability.

In one of the world’s wealthiest countries, we should not accept that 13 percent of our country lives in official poverty, while another 30 percent lives with extreme income insecurity even as they work full time.

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