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Atlanta's living wage debate returns

Could City Hall hike the minimum wage in 2014? It's not out of the question.



As the U.S. economy slowly lurches out of the Great Recession, debate has turned toward addressing income inequality. Some federal lawmakers are pushing to raise the U.S. minimum hourly pay to $10.10 over a several-year period. It's uncertain whether that bill, the Fair Minimum Wage Act, will muster enough votes.

Atlanta lawmakers are supporting the bill. Last week, Atlanta City Council passed a resolution that urged Georgia's U.S. senators and representatives to back the federal wage hike.

The fight over living wage increases in Atlanta goes back decades. Last year, fast-food workers demanded a $15 hourly wage rate. With the issue currently receiving national attention, city officials are taking action. Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray has signed off on a minimum wage hike for all workers across the city. And newly elected Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is currently studying a similar measure's effects. That raises the question: Why doesn't Atlanta City Hall follow suit?

Councilwoman Natalyn Mosby Archibong, who proposed the resolution urging Congress to act, currently has no plans to introduce a local living wage proposal. According to the four-term councilmember, state law prohibits city officials from hiking the minimum wage. But she says she'll keep studying the issue.

"This resolution is a start," Councilwoman Carla Smith says. "Maybe we'll consider going in that direction."

Ben Speight, Atlanta Jobs with Justice co-chair, thinks the city could build a legal argument in favor of local wage hikes based on home rule. Currently, the state's minimum wage is $5.15 per hour. However, most businesses comply with the national rate. Some Georgia Democratic senators have proposed hiking Georgia's minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Considering the issue and Republican majority, it's unlikely to receive a vote.

Georgia AFL-CIO President Charlie Fleming says a successful living wage bill at the local level would likely be challenged in court and meet resistance from the city's corporate business community. But he thinks a rate hike "would help everybody" across the state and even create jobs and reduce social services.

"Research shows that a minimum wage hike would lift people out of poverty and have little-to-no impact on jobs," adds Georgia Budget and Policy Institute Policy Analyst Wesley Tharpe.

A serious living wage proposal would likely need Mayor Kasim Reed's complete support. Last week, he traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where income inequality became a major topic among attendees. The mayor touted how City Hall's estimated 8,500 employees make $10 or more per hour. A Reed spokesman told CL that the mayor supports Council's resolution and echoed Archibong's legal concerns.

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