A worker takes a photo of the public protest in front of city hall. Photo by Scott Ball.
A City worker takes a photo of the rally in front of City Hall on July 31, 2015, organized to call for a $15 minimum wage for City employees. Photo by Scott Ball.

City workers gathered on the steps of City Hall to call for a higher minimum wage on Friday afternoon, less than a week before City Manager Sheryl Sculley will present the proposed 2016 City Budget to City Council. This proposal includes a more than $1.50 increase from $11.47 to $13 per hour minimum wage. The local employee union, Service Employees International Union Texas (SEIU Texas), wants to see that raised even higher to $15.

While this increase is for civilian City employees only, SEIU Texas President Elsa Caballero said the City should lead by example to encourage state and federal legislature to raise minimum wages for public and private employees.

“We felt today was a good day to start talking about the fact that the people of San Antonio – the community of San Antonio – has been struggling for years to (be able to) live with dignity and respect – not as a rich person but just being able to provide for their families,”  Caballero said.

Elsa Caballero speaks in front of city hall backing a $15 minimum wage. Photo by Scott Ball.
Elsa Caballero speaks calls for a $15 minimum wage for City workers. Photo by Scott Ball.

Despite state Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer’s effort to raise the state minimum wage in May, it remains at the federal minimum requirement of $7.25. More than 20 states and Washington D.C. have a minimum wage above the federal minimum.

However, the feds also have a “living wage” guideline set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for a family of four. That’s where the $11.47 amount comes from. The City of San Antonio has followed these federal guidelines since 2005 when Sculley came to town and saw that about 900 City employees were paid below the federal living wage, said the City’s Intergovernmental Relations Director Jeff Coyle. “We’ve been on track with the federal living wage ever since … this (would be) the first time we’re going above.”

City Council will review the increase along with the more than $2 billion fiscal year 2016 Capital and General budget proposal to be presented by Sculley and City staff on Thursday, Aug. 6. If approved, a $2.1 million wage increase would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2016.

Bexar County officials announced plans to raise the minimum wage of its employees to $13 in June. That increase will go into effect on Oct. 1 next year.

There are 7,699 non-uniformed City employees – which includes janitors, food service workers, hospital employees, street maintenance crews, managers, and more – in San Antonio. About 1,300 city employees are currently paid less than $13 and would be effected by the new wage floor, Coyle said.

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“We are ecstatic— this is a huge step for public sector employees, not only in the state, but in the nation. We are proud to have spearheaded this campaign and to have gained the support of our council members and the manager,” stated Robert Cruz of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church on behalf of Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) and Metro Alliance, or COPS/Metro, in a news release.

A man holds up a sign in support of a $15 minimum wage. Photo by Scott Ball. A man holds up a sign in support of a $15 minimum wage. Photo by Scott Ball.
A man holds up a sign in support of a $15 minimum wage. Photo by Scott Ball.

Since the cost of living is relatively low in San Antonio that $13 should go far. Some are concerned that while the “Fight for $15” campaign has gained ground in more expensive cities like Seattle (where it was successful in getting a citywide wage increase in April) or New York (where it’s still gaining support for fast food workers), it might not in San Antonio.

“At the budget goal-setting session on June 25, City Council asked City staff to look into increasing the lowest entry wage we pay our employees,” stated Sculley in a news release.

During this meeting, interim Human Resources Director Lori Steward explained one of the side effects of raising the minimum: “wage compression.”

Basically, if you raise wages too high and/or too quickly, subordinate wages start to approach or match those of managers. So if everyone is starting at $15, those above them experience or title-wise will expect more. “The more you pay maintenance worker, the more you’ll have to pay their supervisors,” Steward said.

Even with the $13 minimum wage, there will be some wage compression, said Coyle on Friday. Some of that $2.1 million for wage increases will be dedicated to remedy the wages of front line supervisors and ensure “upward movement of the wage scale.”

But Caballero of the employee union doesn’t buy the cost of living and wage compression arguments for why $15 can’t be the minimum hourly rate.

“It’s an excuse to keep wages down,” she said. When families have to live with the realities of deciding whether to “buy groceries or gas to get to work, or between paying rent or (electricity) bills,” we have a problem.

*Featured/top image: A City worker takes a photo of the rally in front of City Hall.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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