AUSTIN (KXAN) — A coalition of labor groups are calling on Austin officials to raise the city’s to $22 an hour as part of the fiscal year 2022-23 budget process. The city last approved a living wage of $15 an hour in 2018, based on a 2015 recommendation that established it as a 2020 benchmark goal.
While that recommendation called for reaching a living wage of $15 an hour by 2018, labor specialists then requested the city raise its living wage to $16.83 by the following fiscal year. The city of Austin has not increased its living wage since 2018, despite rising housing and living costs, labor representatives said Tuesday.
That has resulted in significant strain on city employees trying to stay living in the city while working within city departments, representatives said. City Manager Spencer Cronk said financial constraints like the 3.5% tax increase cap, in addition to the pandemic, have stifled some capabilities to revisit the living wage.
“Though Austin has the best job market in the nation, we know that Austin is suffering from rising housing costs,” said Carol Guthrie, business manager for AFSCME Local 1624. “We know that Austin is no longer ranked one of the Top 10, that Austin has dropped down to 13 and all of that is due to the rising costs of housing.”
Representatives who participated in the living wage stakeholder group — which is making the recommendation — include AFSCME, Central Texas Interfaith, the Workers Defense Project, Laborers’ International Union 1095, Austin Chapter of General Contractors, IBEW Local 520, Plumbers Local 286, Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Greater Austin Chamber, Austin LGBT Chamber, Equal Justice Center, Unite Here, Local Progress and the Texas Antipoverty Project.
Under a $22 hourly wage, that would factor out to an annual salary just over $45,000, officials said. That’s a step in the right direction but still doesn’t address the affordability crisis hitting many lower and middle-income residents.
“I think there’s a real opportunity here today for the council to not just affect the lives of the folks who will be taking home these paychecks, but really raise the floor for the city,” said Rachel Melendez with Unite Here.
For a city growing at the rate it is and dependent on increasing home and real estate properties, construction workers are some of the employees who could benefit from this initiative, said Fabiola Barreto, Austin policy coordinator with the Workers Defense Action Fund. She added the $22 hourly living wage is a kick-off point but can’t be the end-all, be-all.
In addition to their recommendation of a $22 per hour living wage, labor representatives also advocate for a 2027 goal of reaching a $27 an hour living wage.
Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said it was important for the city to look at other public sectors that are offering more competitive wages. She pointed to CapMetro raising its bus driver wages to $22 an hour.
“We have to raise the wage in order to ensure that our hardworking Austinites can not only live in the city but that they can afford to have a good quality of life and so that we can deliver the services needed as a city government,” she said.
Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison added she hopes this can be a more collaborative process with constituents, saying she wants the community to have a say in how the city’s budgetary bucket of money is spent.
Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter said keeping the city’s workforce competitive is her highest priority with the budget, adding the commitment to a wage increase is both a “how” and a “when” question. She said she wants to increase the city’s living wage from $15 but added there would be difficult decisions that come with this process due to a 3.5% budget increase cap imposed by state law.
She added that while it’s important to look at the city’s lowest wage earners, middle-income city employees are also feeling financial strains and are essential to city operations, as well.
Council Member Leslie Pool added that with the costs of a wage increase come trade-offs or financial impacts on the city’s budget. She echoed support for added focus on middle-income wager earners and said it’s essential the city also retains experienced, tenured employees in addition to its entry-level or lower-earner employees.
Under current projections, the costs for a $22 hourly living wage would tack on an estimated $18.2 million to $22.8 million to the city’s budget.
Austin City Council will discuss the item in an executive session June 9, with the item currently slated for consideration on the June 16 agenda.