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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.

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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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