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Temporary Savings

A coalition is urging the city to pay day laborers more — but no one knows how much that will cost.


They're the employees, often temporary workers, who rake fallen leaves, weed median strips, clean city buildings, fill potholes and collect residents' trash. The city contracts for their services with agencies that pay workers a near-minimum wage while pocketing the rest for overhead and profits. The city pays the agencies $10.75 per man-hour, on average, but doesn't track how much the workers receive.

The 12 congregations that make up RISC — Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Our Communities — assumes those workers are receiving below the area's "living wage." That's defined as the pay, specific to a particular region, sufficient for a worker to support himself or herself and a family.

RISC announced last week that one of its two full-throttle initiatives for the year was to establish a "living wage" for city temp workers.

Three years ago, City Council establish a living wage for permanent city employees, raising their minimum hourly wage to $8.77. It's now $9.12. And Mayor L. Douglas Wilder recently introduced an ordinance that City Council passed May 30 to raise the rate to $9.62.

Temp workers are a different story. At its June 5 meeting, RISC summoned four council members onstage and asked them to promise they'd introduce a city ordinance increasing the minimum wage for such workers no later than October. Councilmen Bill Pantele, Ellen Robertson, Chris Hilbert and Marty Jewell made the promise, drawing thunderous applause from the packed church.

Vincent Johnson, 47, told the RISC assembly he did city work through day-labor temp agencies for five years. Most days he showed up at 4 a.m. to stand in line with as many as 70 other people. Anyone who went to use the bathroom at a nearby gas station lost his place in line and ran the risk of not working that day.

Johnson worked several city temp jobs, he says, such as leaf pickup and trash collection. After paying fees for transportation and equipment — such as gloves, masks and hard hats, depending on the job — Johnson says his $41 daily wages shrank to $26.

Stacy Burke, a spokeswoman for national temp-labor firm Labor Ready, says people shouldn't assume that agencies pocket the entire difference between what a worker makes and what the agency collects. She says, "what comes out of that, obviously, is taxes, [administrative costs] and worker's compensation."

A 2001 study by the city's department of procurement services found that 125 temp workers for USA Staffing received $5.15 hourly for city jobs, while the company collected $7.70 to $7.78 hourly per person, RISC organizer Michael de Beers says. Another company charged $46.40 per hour for each of two custodians making $6, he says.

Many "temporary" workers have actually worked for the city for years, says Councilman Marty Jewell, a loud proponent of increasing the minimum wage for temp workers. He notes that some workers have collected garbage for the city for five years for near minimum wage. "That's obscene to me," Jewell says.

The minimum wage of $5.15 per hour has not increased since 1997. A minimum wage worker gets paid $206 for a 40-hour week, or about $10,700 per year — just above the poverty line. "Therefore, minimum wage of $5.15 an hour is an injustice," says RISC member Malik Khan of the Islamic Center of Virginia.

Councilman Jewell wants the city to either force the agencies who hire day laborers to pay more — which would mean higher contract costs for the city — or take on those temporary workers as employees. That would mean shouldering the costs of health insurance and other benefits.

One reason given by city officials for not bringing on longtime temp workers as permanent employees is that they fail drug tests, Jewell says. So, he argues, why not offer drug treatment programs for those workers "you like so well you've kept for five years"?

Wilder says one of his ideas for the ambitious "City of the Future" overhaul of Richmond is for the city to hire on permanently those who have "questionable records."

"We can set examples by saying, 'We take the chance with these people; we want others to take a chance with them too,'" Wilder says. "But stand in line to do it," he adds. "Don't be sitting around waiting. Apply for these jobs."

The mayor says he's investigating the idea of mandating a living wage for the city's temporary workers. The problem is that no one, not even the living wage advocates, seems to know how much it will cost.

How many temporary workers are employed by the city? "I don't know the number. … I know there are a whole boatload of them," Jewell says.

About a year ago, Jewell says he discussed the issue with Paul Goldman, the mayor's former senior policy adviser. Jewell thought "we were going to get some traction" on the issue of paying city contractors more, he says. "Then he did some funny math and came up with a $4 million price tag for what it would cost."

Goldman, who no longer works for the mayor, recalls it differently. "That wasn't the figure," he says. "It all depended on who you were going to include."

The cost to provide a living wage to some of the city's temp workers, he says, was more like $500,000 to $1 million a year. "It's a complicated thing to figure out," says Goldman, who contends that he'd requested more data from Jewell and his colleagues but never heard back.

The price of simply paying people more isn't the whole picture, Jewell says. He wonders how much the city spends in public health, social services and law enforcement on behalf of its own temp workers, who don't quality for health benefits with the temp agencies or the city. Also, Jewell says he believes young people are cheated out of good career tracks with the city as a result of entry-level jobs being given to temps.

The state attorney general has ruled living-wage ordinances legal under the Virginia Public Procurement Act, which says cities may use "best value concepts" in procuring goods and services. In other words, a government can decide to pay more than the minimum to get a job done if that means the job will be done better. Proponents of the living wage for contract workers say that increasing wages will make those workers more productive and more loyal.

It will, Jewell asserts. "I've always paid two or three dollars more than the prevailing wage," he says of his workers (Jewell owns a cleaning service). Because if they aren't paid enough, he says, "one way or another, they're going to get theirs." S

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