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Local Governments Mobilize to Support Working Citizens

The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009. In the absence of action from Congress and state legislatures, local governments are adding capacity to their programs to support workers.

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Staff from Denver Labor make presentations about the city's labor laws to community groups, worker organizations and students.
(Denver Labor)
Pandemic shifts in the labor market may have given workers some power to demand better pay, but one in three Americans still earns less than $15 an hour. Campaigns to reset the federal minimum wage to this level have been ongoing for a decade, but so far only one state, California, has made this state law.

According to a 2022 analysis by Oxfam America, almost half of Black workers make less than $15 an hour, as do 60 percent of working women of color and almost six in 10 single parents.

It would be a victory for $15 to become the federal standard, or for states with high costs of living to set it as the wage floor. But even if this happened, it would not mean that these workers would have a “living wage,” enough to meet basic family needs and remain self-sufficient.

According to MIT’s Living Wage calculator, in 2021 both working adults in a family with two children would have needed to earn at least $24.16 per hour to achieve a living wage. At the federal minimum wage of $7.25, a single mother with two children would have had to work 235 hours per week.

COVID-19 made it impossible to ignore the risks and instability citizens face when their wages are out of sync with the cost of survival basics such as housing, food and health care. In recent years, a number of local governments have stepped up their programs to support workers, from enacting local minimum wage laws and pursuing wage theft to creating new offices to enforce labor laws.

The current state of these efforts is outlined in an extensive new report from The Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, the Economic Policy Institute and Local Progress.
Only one state has enacted a state-level minimum wage of $15. According to a calculator developed by MIT, a “living wage” in America is closer to $24 per hour.

Untapped Potential

“A number of localities have come to view protecting workers and improving their working conditions as part of their core municipal function,” notes the report. The steps governments have taken down this road include passing local minimum wage and sick leave mandates, creating worker boards or councils to provide input on policy, establishing local offices to enforce labor laws and making sure their own employment practices reflect what they hope to see from private employers.

State policy can be a limiting factor on this innovation. For example, more than two dozen states have passed laws forbidding local governments from setting a minimum wage higher than the state minimum wage, including 12 that use the federal $7.25-per-hour standard. But even in these states, more attention to existing protections can benefit workers and communities.

“There's a lot of untapped potential for local governments to protect working people and to play a new role in that regard,” says report co-author Terri Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard worklife program.

LiJia Gong, policy and legal director at Local Progress, and Gerstein’s co-author, underscores that there’s more at stake than workers’ rights. “It’s about maintaining the fabric of the community that the local government is trying to serve,” she says — preventing displacement, helping citizens retain the ability to live near their families, in the neighborhoods that they consider to be “home.”

Workers who don’t earn enough can create fiscal challenges for local government if they become dependent on public benefits, says Gerstein, a situation that befell ride-share drivers in New York City before the city set a minimum rate for their pay. Cities that had labor standards offices in place when the pandemic struck were better able to respond to the challenges it presented, whether enforcing paid sick leave or assisting workers unable to access unemployment insurance.

“Creating that institution within government is planting the seed that then allows everything else to develop,” says Gerstein.
Many states have passed laws forbidding local governments from establishing minimum wages higher than the state minimum wage.

All About Outreach

Denver Labor, in existence since 2020, is a division created within the Denver auditor’s office, which has been enforcing wage requirements since the 1950s, says Jeffrey Garcia, Denver Labor’s executive director.

“We’re the only department of labor organization under an elected auditor in the United States, certainly at the municipal level,” he says. “It gives us a little bit of independence — we don’t act under the legislative body or the chief executive.”

Before 2020, the office enforced the city’s prevailing wage, a “living wage” law with minimum requirements for city workers in lower-paying jobs and wage requirements for contractors doing work for the city. When the state Legislature passed a law allowing municipalities to set their own minimum wage, Garcia’s workload changed.

Denver was the only Colorado city to take advantage of the law, establishing a local minimum wage of $15.87. Instead of serving about 40,000 workers, Garcia now had responsibility for nearly 200,000.

With support to build up its staff, Denver Labor didn’t just add more attorneys. It also placed a priority on hiring people with communications expertise, including a former broadcast news producer, a marketing executive and people from the local newspaper.

The communications staff produce web tutorials, radio ads in Spanish and English, host a weekly “Wage Wednesday” television on the department’s Facebook page and a monthly labor program on Denver’s government television station. Denver Labor makes presentations to schools, church groups, business organizations and labor organizations. The department’s website includes running reports on recovered wages, restitution stories and a calculator workers can use to determine if their pay meets local requirements.

“We had a limited budget, and we wanted to make sure it was spent effectively,” Garcia says. “We could add another four investigators, or we could add four communication people who could make tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people aware of what we’re doing.”

Complaints about labor law violations tripled with the arrival of the communications team, going from 430 to 1,300. They’re on pace for twice that this year. This isn’t the result of the department looking for “bad guys,” Garcia says, but of community members alerting it to problems, just as they would call for police or an ambulance.

Denver Labor provides online updates on total recovery of unpaid wages was well as individual restitution stories.
(Denver Labor)

New Economy, New Standards

Brian Walsh is director of the labor standards enforcement division for the city of Minneapolis. He sees local enforcement of worker protections as a cutting-edge activity for government, pioneered by cities like San Francisco and Seattle.

The economy is evolving and fissuring at lighting speed, he says, with industries whose layers of subcontracting and reliance on independent contractors require new standards. Because cities are largely freed from the political gridlock that can slow state and federal progress, they are uniquely poised to create standards that can apply to all workers as the nature of employment shifts.

Minneapolis established a local minimum wage, but Walsh found that its “sick and safe time” ordinance generated even greater public response. It requires employers with six or more employees to provide paid time off to sick workers according to guidelines published by the city. Employers with fewer workers must also provide leave to employees who are ill, but can choose not to pay them.

“Prior to our passing the ordinance, a huge number of workers, up to 40 percent across the city of Minneapolis, had no paid time off whatsoever,” says Walsh. “It’s a legally protected right now that benefits workers and their families and in the end benefits everyone.”

As of July 1, employees of large businesses in Minneapolis (100 employees or more) will be paid $15 an hour. Even if this isn’t quite a living wage, Walsh considers it to be a huge victory for the city, an outcome achieved through the cooperative efforts of business owners, labor organizations and workers.

He makes it a point to collaborate with labor unions as well as worker centers, nonprofits that help low-wage workers understand their rights and access support from the city if they need it. “We have very different tools, and in some instances different goals, but our missions overlap in a lot of ways.”

Walsh facilitates monthly meetings of a workplace advisory committee that enables workers, community groups and employers to raise concerns about workplace or policy issues. “Technically, it’s only an advisory board, but when you have significant constituencies advocate something collectively, the policymakers in the city don’t have a choice but to pay close attention.”
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An enforcement dashboard keep Minneapolis citizens up to date regarding progress in recovering unpaid wages.
(City of Minneapolis)

Protecting the Vulnerable

When Chicago launched the Office of Labor Standards in 2019 under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, minimum wage and basic leave laws were already on the books, says Andrew Fox, director of the office. “But there was not a standalone office that reported and was held accountable to the worker advocacy groups and the public — if I have a complaint, who do I call?”

As of July 1, the minimum wage in Chicago is $15.40 for employers who have 21 or more employees. This wage applies to all domestic workers, regardless of how many are employed, a provision reflecting Mayor Lightfoot’s experience as the child of a domestic worker.

The number of reported cases is low, but the incidence of worker protections being violated among domestic workers is very high, says Fox. “The vulnerable status of these people made this the right thing to do.”

The city requires employers of domestic workers to provide them with a contract, in the preferred language of the worker, outlining such things as the work and wage schedule that they have agreed upon. In advance of this requirement coming into force, the city hired worker centers to train former domestic workers to do outreach about it, sidestepping possible distrust of government. The groups also hosted webinars and live events on Facebook.

Fox points to the city’s Fair Workweek Ordinance as its most aggressive. This applies to employers in industries such as retail, health care, hotels, restaurants and manufacturing, with considerations regarding their size, to provide advance notice of work schedules and gives workers the right to decline previously unscheduled work hours.

The office has also had significant legal victories, achieving two settlements in the neighborhood of half a million dollars for restitution of unpaid sick leave with a Burger King franchise and a global snack food company. These were big enough events that they raised public confidence in the office and prompted new complaints, including from characteristically reticent domestic workers.

“Workers deserve a living wage, and workers belong to both parties,” says Fox. “I don’t see this as a partisan issue; in the post-pandemic world, workers are not going to put themselves at risk if it’s not worth their while."
The child of a domestic worker, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has championed fair pay and contract requirements for a vulnerable population.
(Antonio Perez/TNS)

Growth for All

Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym, co-chair of the Local Progress board, advocates for better pay in a state that forbids her city from establishing a minimum wage above the state’s $7.25 standard. The state’s governor has called this wage “disrespectful to workers,” but so far legislators have not responded to his call to raise it to $12, with a path to $15 by 2028.

While the city can’t impose a wage requirement on private employers, the City Council passed legislation making $15 the minimum wage for city workers and employees of city contractors. A Fair Workweek ordinance provides schedule reliability for retail, hospitality and service workers.

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Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym: "Growth that leaves behind working families is not really meaningful economic growth at all. And the lack of action at the federal and state level has led localities to step up and make it clear we won’t accept or tolerate this level of inequity."
(Helen Gym)
Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate among the country’s 10 largest cities. Just over one in four of its citizens, and 37 percent of its children, live below the federal poverty line. According to the Federal Reserve, Pennsylvania’s GDP, one of the largest of any state, has reached new highs in recent months.

“Growth that leaves behind working families is not really meaningful economic growth at all,” says Gym. “At the end of the day, that’s simply not sustainable for the companies or the communities they operate within.”

Harvard’s Gerstein, who enforced labor laws for the New York state attorney’s office for nearly two decades, believes the report that she and Gong produced offers the most complete picture to date of what local governments are doing to foster family-supporting wages.

“There are no fantastical ideas, or concepts that could never actually be implemented,” she says. “As careful stewards of the public trust, governments can sometimes be timid about innovating, but everything in this report has been enacted or is actually happening somewhere.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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