Irvine bucks the trend as council votes to repeal living wage law

Irvine moves to repeal its landmark living wage ordinance

When Irvine adopted a living wage ordinance nearly eight years ago, the suburban city in the heart of Orange County was cheered for its progressive effort to give its poorest wage earners a bigger paycheck.

Now, as cities across the country are warming to the idea of increasing the minimum wage, Irvine is headed in the opposite direction. City Council members voted Tuesday to repeal the 2007 ordinance.

A second council vote is needed to finalize repeal of the living wage law. The council meets again next month.

Councilwoman Beth Krom, who supported the original living wage ordinance and voted against repealing it, called Tuesday's vote a step backward.

"I ask myself whether I'm even living in the same city that I've been living in for the last 30 years," said Krom. "We’re a city of nice people. We’re not a city of people who are looking for ways to take a pound of flesh from the people who can least afford to give it up."

The 2007 Irvine law requires that certain city contractors match payment for their employees to the lowest rate that the city sets for its own workers, $10.82 an hour.

That rate is established by resolution and intended to be “an hourly wage that is sufficient to live with dignity and to achieve economic self-sufficiency,” the ordinance states.

The minimum wage in California is currently $9 an hour. In Los Angeles, City Council members voted last week to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.

First adopted in Irvine in 2007 under then-Mayor Beth Krom, the ordinance was celebrated by some as a progressive step. On Tuesday, Krom was the only council member to dissent.

Former Mayor Larry Agran, who pushed for the living-wage law in 2007, said the ordinance at the time was "pioneering."

He said the living wage concept, for the most part, went “very smoothly” with contractors. Now, he said, the council was undoing the city’s reputation for leading the way in building a quality workforce that made more than a “poverty wage.”

“It’s disheartening,” Agran said. “It’s also cruel to those who are going to be affected by this policy.”

Irvine’s current rules apply to companies whose contracts with the city are valued at $100,000 or more a year, according to the city staff report.

The companies must also pay the established wage to all employees who conduct a majority of their work in Orange County -- a point with which council member Christina Shea, who raised the topic for review, took particular issue.

"That is a burden on our taxpayers," she said. 

The living wage ordinance also requires that contractors provide health benefits and time off comparable to that offered by the city, or else add an additional "benefit factor rate" to the hourly rate, the staff report said. For the 2014-15 fiscal year, that additional benefit rate was $2.52 an hour.

To call the hourly rate a living wage is a misnomer, Mayor Pro-Tem Jeffrey Lalloway said, suggesting it instead be called a "feel-good wage."

"It makes everyone think that they're doing something good when you're really not," he said. "This doesn't let you live."

Added Lalloway: "Instead of trying to impose a wage, a feel-good wage, we should all be seeking ways to have our economy grow." 

If the ordinance is repealed, current contracts that expire in the next few months would be extended and then rebid when the repeal takes effect, according to the staff report. Others will be rebid when they expire.

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