Living Wage Policy Brief: Stephanie Luce

Date Published: 
Tue, 01/25/2011

By Stephanie Luce
January 25, 2011

“Living wage” ordinances are a policy tool used to raise wages for low-income workers. While they vary quite a bit, the most common form is a municipal ordinance requiring businesses that hold service contracts or receive economic development assistance from a city to pay their employees a living wage.

There are different ways to define a living wage but the basic concept is an hourly wage that would bring a worker with a family up to the federal poverty line.

The first such ordinance was passed in Baltimore in 1994. The idea became popular and by the late 1990s and early 2000s, dozens of campaigns emerged. Today, there are over 150 living wage ordinances in effect around the country, in large and small, urban and rural cities and counties - including Los Angeles, New York city, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Detroit, Buffalo and Milwaukee.  A few living wage ordinances apply to other kinds of entities, such as universities, airports and stadiums. Maryland broke ground by passing a statewide living wage ordinance in 2007.

Most living wage ordinances mandate employers to pay an hourly living wage and provide health benefits, or pay a higher wage if benefits are not provided. For example, the 2011 living wage rate in San Diego, California is $11 an hour plus health benefits, or $13.20 an hour if health benefits are not provided. Most ordinances are indexed to go up annually with the cost of living, and many include additional benefits such as paid sick days.

Living Wage campaigns are usually run by large coalitions. The main groups involved include community organizations, unions, faith-based groups, and students.