ST. PETERSBURG — Minimum wage increases frequently have been championed by Democrats as a way to raise the standard of living for the nation’s poorest workers.
Now, the largest union representing city workers is challenging St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a former Democratic state lawmaker, to apply those principals to City Hall.
The Florida Public Service Union is asking the city to adopt a $15 per hour minimum wage for all city workers, some of whom earn just $9.12 per hour. More than 300 of the 1,200 office workers, parks and recreation staff, sewage workers and others, represented by the union earn less than a “living wage,” union leaders said.
The demand was made as annual bargaining talks between the city and the union kicked off Friday. The city is offering to raise salaries by 2 percent for the second straight year following five years when pay was frozen for most city workers.
“A 2 percent raise is not going to change anybody’s life,” said Rick Smith, FPSU chief of staff. “Raising the base rate to $15 per hour will significantly change the lives of people who are at the bottom.”
Kristen Mory, city labor relations and compensations manager, said the proposals would be referred to Kriseman but that the city’s offer of a 2 percent raise stands.
“That’s the city’s position at this point,” Mory said. “It doesn’t preempt bargaining further.”
City Communications Director Ben Kirby said Kriseman will not comment while bargaining is ongoing.
The union’s proposed minimum wage is based on a “living wage” calculator devised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It would be more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, which was established in 2009. This year, Florida raised its minimum wage by 14 cents to $7.93 per hour.
Adopting the proposal would cost the city about $1 million per year, but also would likely require the city to adjust pay scales to avoid newly hired workers out-earning existing ones. That could cost another $1 million, Smith said.
Minimum wage increases have become a heated political battle-ground in recent months with President Obama pushing for an increase in the federal minimum wage and workers picketing fast-food companies to raise their minimum salaries. Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C., largely have opposed an increase, arguing it will lead to higher unemployment.
Earlier this month, the Seattle City Council approved a $15 minimum wage. On Monday, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill that will phase in increases in that state’s minimum wage, raising it from the current $8.73 to $10.50 by 2018.
FPSU’s bargaining demands also include a proposal that the city not ask job applicants about their criminal history nor conduct background checks until they have made their hiring decision. The city could then conduct a background check and make a final decision.
That would improve the employment chances for residents convicted many years ago of crimes such possession of marijuana, Smith said.
“There is this epidemic of joblessness with no chance to get a job,” he said.
Other demands include a readjustment of the pay schedule that rewards workers based on length of service, and the creation of an apprenticeship program to train unemployed residents to replace retiring city workers.
City and union negotiators are scheduled to hold their next meeting June 27.