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Group Supports Living Wage Proposal

Route 1 Task Force hears call for Fairfax County to establish a living wage.

Who knew that Gerry Hyland was a member of the Hod Carriers Union? That piece of trivia arose at the June 7 meeting of the Route 1 Task Force for Human Services. Clayton Sinyai, of the Campaign for a Living Wage, discussed the group’s advocacy for a county ordinance that any business receiving a contract from the county must pay its workers a living wage. Also at the meeting, Deputy County Executive for Human Services Verdia Haywood described how the state’s cuts in childcare money would have a drastic impact on Fairfax. He talked about plans to establish more Boys’ and Girls Clubs in the county and a new effort by the county to overhaul its mental health system.

Sinyai, the chairman of the Campaign for a Living Wage, is also the political director of the Construction and Master Laborer’s Local Union. He said the union represents mainly unskilled laborers, “not the guy driving the steamroller but the guy standing in the asphalt raking it.” He said members of the union typically receive salaries in the mid-$20 thousand range, plus health benefits. But he said that only about five percent of these workers belong to the union. Most non-unionized workers are paid around $20 thousand per year with no benefits. He said the vast majority of these workers are immigrants from South and Central America and the Caribbean.

The Campaign is trying to ensure that regardless of union affiliation, anyone working for Fairfax County will be able to support himself and his dependents on his salary. “No one who works should live in poverty,” is the motto of the Campaign for a Living Wage. While he said the campaign condemned the situation in which wage-earners could work a full-time job at minimum wage and still be mired in poverty “partly because it’s just wrong,” he said, the most important argument is that it is an ineffective way for the county to spend its own.

“There are a lot of costs that are imposed on us when we people are paid a poverty wage,” Sinyai said. He said quality of service is impacted, and minimum wage jobs have high-turnovers, because people are willing to walk off the job without warning if they are offered a job with higher pay.

When questioned further about this, Sinyai said he described the ethical good as only a “collateral benefit” because the county’s authority to require a living wage for purely humanitarian reasons could be challenged in court.

Sinyai brought a list of jurisdictions in the area that had already adopted living wage ordinances like the one proposed by his organization. Montgomery County and Prince George’s County in Maryland, Washington, D.C, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Alexandria and Arlington have all adopted wages between $10.80 and $11.80 per hour for many public and publicly contracted workers. This is a stark contrast to the Federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.

Sinyai distributed a list created by Jose Comayagua, Fairfax’s Director of Facilities Management. The list detailed proposed wages from the “costs” section in each of the county’s thirteen contracts for custodial services. Out of 14 contracts, the average wage proposed for a general cleaner was $6.62 an hour. Three of the contractors indicated they would pay their general cleaners the minimum wage of $5.15. The average for supervisors, the highest income-earners, was $9.86 an hour.

But Ken Disselkoen, Mount Vernon’s Regional Director for Human Resources, questioned whether the standard of about $11.50 an hour would be enough for residents of Fairfax. “How is this ‘living wage’ determined?” he asked. “If we’re saying a number here. It ought to be what it really takes to live in the county.”

Sinyai replied that each jurisdiction has its own form of living wage. Although $11.50 still might not be a living wage in Fairfax, it would be a doubling of the current minimum, and therefore an improvement.

Sinyai stressed that the Campaign for a Living Wage was not campaigning for a change in the minimum wage. Their request that county contractors be required to pay a certain wage would affect only those businesses receiving money from the county.

Gerry Hyland made his position on the issue clear. “I support it,” he said. He added that he had been a member of the Hod Carriers Union for seven years to pay his way through college and law school. “You bring back wonderful memories for me of my years working for union labor,” Hyland said.

HAYWOOD HAD THREE ISSUES on his agenda. The first was money for childcare services. “I’m very concerned about the state allocation of childcare,” he said. “It has gone from bad to worse.” He said lawmakers in Richmond may cut $11 to $13 million from this year’s allocation for childcare. Haywood said that for Fairfax, this would mean cutting about one third of children in county subsidized childcare out of the system. He said that if this had to be done, it would be preferable to do it by attrition, i.e. not replacing any children that left the program.

But Haywood was upbeat about the second issue. “I think this is good news,” he said. He explained that as part of the county’s renewed focus on gang prevention, it would “beef up on capabilities around Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs.” He said the county plans to have six by the end of the fiscal year. It will use a “community-collaborative model.” Instead of running the facilities on its own, the county plans to integrate the clubs, which provide a structured place for children to spend free time, into the network of community based organizations with which it has worked successfully. He said the money for these clubs will not have to be appropriated, but will come from the reprogramming of existing funds.

Haywood ended with the announcement that the Board of Supervisors had commissioned a blue ribbon panel to address shortcomings in the county’s mental health system. “The board is very, very concerned,” he said, citing issues of access and long waiting lists. These issues have been highlighted tragically by the murder of two Fairfax county police officers by a young man who was reportedly rebuffed by the county’s mental health providers.

Haywood said the panel will examine questions such as, “To what extent as a community do we want our mental health system to be a primary carrier [and] to guarantee access on demand … and how can we make that happen?”