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The Living-on-the-Edge Ordinance 

This county ordains a living wage for some, instead of for all

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
For just a little while there, you might have thought the Los Angeles County Living Wage proposal would pass, if not with unanimity, at least in conformity with similar ordinances in the city of Los Angeles and elsewhere. And that its application to the largest county in the country would therefore have both real and symbolic value. If only this had happened.

At this point, all that can really be said of the county living-wage ordinance is that it narrowly passed, 3-2. Or, more precisely, that something called a living-wage ordinance passed. But, unfortunately for the more than 800 represented county workers and 10,000 county contract workers it ought to cover, what got passed could be the least effective living-wage law in California.

Los Angeles County’s living-wage ordinance lacks two vital features quite typical of such laws: first a codicil protecting all contract employees if the contract for their employment is passed from one contractor to another (although their jobs are supposedly protected if the contractor is fired). The other missing provision would have applied the living-wage standards to part-time workers. Though she didn’t return my calls, I’m guessing that the last provision was left out due to one key misconception by one politician: Supervisor Gloria Molina seems to think that part-timers don’t deserve a decent wage. Molina’s was the crucial third vote (along with Zev Yaroslavsky’s and Yvonne Burke’s) on the matter, and so she got her way: "A living wage for part-time workers is an oxymoron," she said — oxymoron being a $50 word for contradiction.

But I’ll tell you what an oxymoron really is. It is the notion that anyone who happens to be working in a part-time job doesn’t really need the money. Or any health and medical benefits either.

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I must admit some strong partialities here. I’ve temped on and off in the past and worked part-time for two different news agencies, in the (vain) long-term hope of getting a full-time job with either concern. This, by the way, is the usual motivation for part-time workers. Another common reason is that the worker has more family obligations than a full-time schedule would permit. There are other motives for not working full-time, of course, an infinity of them. About the only one I’ve never encountered among my fellow part-timers is the one Molina appears to believe in: that people seek out part-time jobs solely for the delight of working for the minimum wage. Therefore, such thrill seekers deserve nothing better.

Now, maybe I’m exceptional, but I have never shared that turn-on and I don’t know anyone who has. The experience has more to do with working preposterous hours. I’ve done 17 hours in a row at two back-to-back jobs, and I know plenty of people who’ve worked more than that when stacking part-time jobs. It also has to do with learning to mend your own clothes, acquiring plenty of pinto-bean recipes and shopping at the Grand Central Market and the 99-cent Store. And it typically means showing up at your workplace whooping, wheezing and contagious, because, as an ailing part-timer, you don’t get any sick days. You give them. As Triana Silton, an SEIU Local 1877 organizer put it after last week’s hearing, "Very few [county] part-timers are really bored, rich housewives."

Beyond the low average wages of part-timers, of course, there’s another excellent reason to bring them under the living-wage tent. It’s the usual reason cited by those who promote the living wage: As long as part-timers earn less than full-time workers, any cash-flow-conscious county contractor would be crazy not to hire them in lieu of full-timers. In fact, stockholders in such a contracting firm might even sue management for making unwarranted expenditures by hiring more expensive full-timers instead of underpaid part-timers. Further, since the county’s new ordinance presently lacks a comprehensive worker-retention provision, there is little to prevent a new contractor from replacing a full-time work force with cheaper part-timers. "We have evidence that this has already happened in some janitorial contracts," said Yaroslavsky. "Workers in the Long Beach and East L.A. courthouses have very courageously stepped forward to tell us of such abuses."

Yaroslavsky said further that county staff would "very carefully monitor" the various county contracts, and promised that if similar abuses appear, "We’ll revisit it."

But as it stands, the biggest municipality ever to pass such an ordinance has just authorized what could be the weakest such law anywhere. Madeline Janis-Aparicio of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy said she believed the county’s was the only living-wage ordinance in the U.S. that didn’t protect part-time workers. But she added that even in its current form, "It’s not an insignificant thing . . . and we hope to come back next year to strengthen it."

Meanwhile, the county is definitely at the wrong end of the living-wage learning curve. According to a June 21 Business Week article, one of the fastest-growing organizing drives in American labor is targeting part-time and temp employees — the collective term for whom is "contingent workers." This movement’s taken hold in New Jersey and South Carolina, and now the AFL-CIO is beginning a model contingent-worker recruiting program in the job-rich Silicon Valley. One of the article’s most interesting findings, by the way, was that fully two-thirds of those taking part-time work do so in the hopes that it will lead to full-time jobs. Not, as Ms. Molina seems to believe, to ease boredom between polo matches.

Greek Comedy

Not many big cities have a Greek Theater like ours. Los Angeles’ own Greek resulted from a grant from Colonel Griffith Jenkins Griffith, who endowed it 102 years ago in the park that bears his name. Never mind that it’s more often the scene of headbanger rock concerts than the Oedipus cycle: With its perfect Doric façade and its sweep of hillside seating for 6,162, it’s long been one of our community’s most elegant and taken-for-granted assets.

Not, however, by the gigantic Nederlander Corp. Nederlander operates 35 theaters in the U.S., Canada and Europe — five of them in the greater Los Angeles area. The Greek is the second largest of these, after the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. (By the way, is there an Anaheim Pond of Lake Arrowhead?) But the Greek is far and away the largest Nederlander operation in Los Angeles proper.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. Although this publication has sometimes complained of problems with Nederlander management, the city’s been regularly renewing its Greek Theater contract for the past 24 years. But then a funny thing happened. While the current Nederlander contract isn’t up for renewal until October 2001, Nederlander submitted a new contract in April that offered various costly improvements on the theater — for the same $500,000-per-year terms — through to 2006. These were the same improvements the Board of Recreation and Parks had previously announced it would ask of other bidders for the Greek concession. (The city’s request for bids on this contract usually goes out two years in advance of its expiration.) But the Nederlander renewal would avoid the inconvenience of having also to offer the contract to those competitive bidders.

On June 2, the Board of Recreation and Parks agreed to consider such a contract "in concept," according to R&P staff member Linda Barth. Neal Papiano, the power attorney and still-unregistered city lobbyist who presented the proposal, could not be reached for comment, but in his presentation he stated that the renewal was "both in the best interest of the city and required to further the public’s use and enjoyment of the theater . . ." Only two board members questioned the proposal’s legality, R&P board president Steve Soboroff and commissioner Lisa Specht, who cited a charter requirement that a new contract be put out to bid.

But their dissent helped alert City Councilman Joel Wachs, who memo’d R&P board president (and mayoral hopeful) Steve Soboroff.

"What in the world were you thinking?" Wachs asked, noting that the board’s action was taken "with blatant disregard for the requirements of the City Charter" and "the advice of the city attorney who informed the board that it would violate [that] charter."

Assistant City Attorney Mark Brown, in his memo to the board, queried the legality of the renewal arrangement, noting that four other management firms plan to bid for the next Greek management contract. They may never get a chance. Following input from the city attorney, the Nederlander renewal proposal goes back to the R&P Commission next month for review — and, assuming the commission gives its nod, thence for final approval to a City Council over which Papiano’s golden tongue has often showed powerful suasion.

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