The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The governing board of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center was told by its legal counsel at a Wednesday meeting that state law prevented them from requiring contractors to pay their employees higher wages than the federal minimum of $7.25. The attorney, David Phelps, had been asked to study the issue after board member Robert “Tiger” Hammond said he wanted the center to adopt the city of New Orleans’ living wage ordinance.

The City Council passed a living wage ordinance in 2015, which required contractors with contract values greater than $25,000 to pay their employees at least $10.55 per hour. That rate is adjusted each year for inflation and, according to the city’s website, is now $11.19 per hour. 

Phelps said that the state’s public bid laws prevents the Convention Center from requiring contractors to “pay predetermined or prevailing wages.”

“Our report does not have a favorable outcome for adopting a living wage requirement,” Phelps said. “The city has broad powers, the exhibition hall authority has narrow powers.”

That report left the board with the task of finding a way around the legal limitations. In the end, they decided that, instead of requiring contractors to pay a certain wage, they could require them to disclose whether or not their payroll aligns with the city’s living wage ordinance. They could then use those answers as a decision making factor when choosing a contractor. 

“We have an opportunity to skin the cat a different way,” board chairman Melvin Rodrigue said. “There are things we can do.”

The board unanimously passed a motion instructing the staff, along with Phelps, to develop a new criteria for requests for proposals, RFPs, and requests for qualifications, RFQs, that would ask potential contractors whether they are meeting the city’s livable wage standards with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

“This is critical,” said board member Dottie Belletto. “We’ve been talking about this for three years. Now is the time.”

The motion was submitted verbally and only referred to RFQs and RFPs, which are typically used for professional service contracts rather than construction work. But Convention Center President Michael Sawaya said that “the intention is to look at all contracts that go through a competitive bid process.” 

The board still needs to vote to actually adopt the new criteria once they have been developed by staff. 

Board member Ryan Berni, who introduced the motion, said that, in the event that a firm isn’t paying employees what they had claimed they would, the Convention Center board could decline to renew those contracts.

Robert ‘Tiger’ Hammond, president of the New Orleans AFL-CIO, at a Convention Center board meeting.

Hammond, who also serves as the president of the local chapter of the AFL-CIO, first told The Lens he would try to implement a living wage requirement at the Convention Center last month. He revealed his intentions during an interview for a report from The Lens on the Convention Center’s history of purchasing products from Prison Enterprises.

Prison Enterprises is a division within the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections that uses prison labor to produce and sell products ranging from iron fences to laundry detergent to office furniture. Inmates working for Prison Enterprises can either work for a reduced sentence or for wages ranging from zero to 20 cents. 

Hammond and other board members attempted to enact a living wage requirement in 2017. At a meeting that year, board member Ryan Berni introduced two motions. The first was to seek an opinion from the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office on the legality of a wage requirement. The second was to “instruct legal counsel to work with staff on permissible ‘living wage’ language.” 

The votes for each motions were tied 6-6 and they failed. 

At Wednesday’s meeting, seven people spoke during the public comment period in favor of a living wage requirements. Convention Center meetings rarely have more than one public speaker. The public commenters at Wednesday’s meeting included several union representatives and City Councilman Jay Banks.

“People working at $7.25 are struggling desperately to make it and it’s almost impossible,” Banks said. “Having people work where they can’t afford to live just makes no sense.”

The staff will likely get their recommendations to the board at its April meeting, Sawaya said. 

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...