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Living Wage Law Could Get Boost

Government: City Council votes to strengthen ordinance, aimed at helping low-income LAX workers.

November 11, 1998|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Over the fierce objections of the national airline industry, the Los Angeles City Council took several steps Tuesday to strengthen its living wage law.

The law--aimed at helping low-wage Los Angeles International Airport workers whose companies contract with the city--so far has led to raises for only about 750 employees citywide. Advocates said the changes unanimously approved by the council could lead to raises for several thousand others, including those employed by subcontractors.

Council members, who began debating the ordinance two years ago, said Tuesday that they were moved by the stories of workers such as Sonia Ramirez, who has yet to benefit from the ordinance.

Single-handedly raising her 3-year-old son, Ramirez, 24, works the early morning shift at Los Angeles International Airport, where she screens bags for guns, knives and other contraband.

Testifying Tuesday in a quiet, strong voice, Ramirez told the council that she is paid $5.75 an hour without health benefits, paid vacation or sick time.

Under the law, workers who are hired by municipal contractors must be paid at least $7.39 per hour plus health benefits or $8.64 without benefits.

The law has been stymied ever since the council approved it over Mayor Richard Riordan's veto. The airline industry, which hires subcontractors for most of the airport jobs in question, has refused to comply with the law in most of the airport terminals.

Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and an airport commissioner, said Tuesday that the airlines "refuse to share their wealth."

The appoved changes were aimed at all municipal contractors, but particularly at the airline industry. The council voted to strengthen the law's enforcement provisions and to delete language that is believed to have allowed scores of workers to earn less than the living wage if they are paid with federal grant funds.

"This is a whole new ballgame," said Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who championed the living wage law. "We want to make sure the original target--the folks at LAX--get covered."

Robert Span, a Los Angeles attorney representing the Airline Airport Affairs Committee, made up of all the airlines operating at LAX, said the group is reviewing the council action to determine whether the city ordinance is preempted by federal law.

"There is a concern in the industry about local regulations that may conflict with the overall national airline transportation policy," Span said. "Airlines do get concerned about local policy."

Under the federal Airline Deregulation Act, states and local agencies are prohibited from enacting laws or policies that affect the routes, rates and services of an airline.

Council members said they were moved more by the voices of those like Ramirez than by threats of litigation from the airline industry.

"This brought a human level to the issues before us," said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski.

Councilman Joel Wachs, who urged the council to make the language changes in the law to include workers who are paid with federal grants, said it is unconscionable for contractors to skirt the law. "The least they can do is pay their workers a living wage,"

The minimum wage that most airline employees receive is $5.75 without benefits, an amount that leaves most families below the federal poverty line, according to living wage advocates.

The city attorney's office will draft the changes in the ordinance, which must return to the council before they are reviewed by Riordan. The mayor is expected to approve the changes.

"This is very significant," said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, director of the Los Angeles Living Wage Coalition, which pushed for the law and now monitors it. "It really puts the airlines on notice. This huge, national industry has drawn a line in the sand with the city of Los Angeles and the council is saying they're not intimidated."

Ramirez, who could get a raise by early next year if her employer complies with the law, welcomed the council action.

"This is what we deserve," she said.

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