Living wage law resurrected 

The return of living wage

Without any of the noisy campaigning, political posturing or polarizing rhetoric that characterized last year’s living wage ballot initiative, the Missoula City Council appears to be moving forward on a new living wage ordinance that seems likely to pass by early next year.

The ordinance, entitled the “Missoula Quality Jobs and Labor Protection Ordinance” is narrower in scope than the ballot measure rejected by voters last year and would apply only to businesses applying to the city for block grants, industrial revenue bonds or other public subsidies earmarked for economic development and job creation.

According to Ward Two Councilmember Jim McGrath, a longtime living wage proponent who drafted the latest proposal, the new ordinance would not apply to businesses that have contracts with the city, nor those seeking assistance to upgrade aging or outdated sprinklers, fire alarms and the like to come into compliance with fire and life safety codes. In addition, the new proposal uses a simpler accountability mechanism that would not require businesses to divulge proprietary or private information about their employees, a complaint voiced last year by living wage opponents.

“There seems to be an overwhelming sentiment on Council to adopt an ordinance,” says McGrath. “It’s been an education process. This legislation will be better than [last year’s] initiative and will be crafted better and it will do what it does better.”

A “living wage” is defined as a wage that allows a fulltime employee to meet all his or her basic needs of food, housing, transportation and medical care without relying upon public assistance. In Missoula, a living wage would be $8 an hour, or $8.80 an hour for employees who receive no health benefits, and would be linked to the Consumer Price Index.

McGrath says that a living wage ordinance becomes even more important as the city takes a more active role in providing subsidies for economic development. For example, although Missoula hadn’t provided an industrial revenue bond for the last five years, this year City Council approved two: one for Missoula Aging Services and another for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. While no living wage ordinance is in effect, the fact that both employers pay their workers a living wage was a factor in their approval.

“There’s a clear logic that if we’re trying to create jobs, they should be reasonably good-paying jobs,” says McGrath. “We’ve internalized the living wage principle as a community.”

A public hearing on the proposed ordinance is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. during the City Council’s regularly scheduled meeting.

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