New Orleans firefighters in City Council chamber in July 2021 demanding the city increase the minimum wage for city workers to at least $15 an hour. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans City Council unanimously voted on Thursday to amend the city’s Living Wage Ordinance and raise the minimum wage for city contractors from the current level of $11.19 an hour to $15 an hour by 2023. 

The ordinance received universal support among the council and public commenters. But the discussion at Thursday’s meeting was dominated by concerns about what the ordinance does not cover — the wages of direct city employees. 

The City Council doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally raise the minimum wage for city workers. That’s up to the Civil Service Commission, an independent board that approves city personnel policies and sets its pay plan. The base rate for city employees is currently $11.21 an hour.

Dozens of firefighters attended Thursday’s meeting, holding signs reading, “I’m a firefighter. My family deserves a living wage too,” next to their hourly wages, some of which were as low as $11.60 an hour. A group of field maintenance workers for the city’s Department of Public Workers also lodged complaints about their exclusion from the living wage amendment this week and staged a one-day strike, demanding better working conditions and a minimum wage of $15 an hour. 

“We just want to be recognized as being worthy of a living wage along with everybody else,” Aaron Mischler, president of the New Orleans Fire Fighters Association, said on Thursday. 

There are currently 604 city employees who make less than $15 per hour, Civil Service Director Amy Trepagnier told The Lens. She said that number does not include Sewerage and Water Board employees or Fire Department employees that are paid with state supplemental funds or the Fire Department’s dedicated property tax.

While the council can’t raise city worker wages on its own, it did take some action to try and pave the way.

At Thursday’s meeting, the council passed a motion requesting that the city Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño provide the council with an analysis in the next 45 days of what it would take to increase the minimum wage for direct city employees to $15 an hour.  

“This motion directs the CAO to tell us how much it’s going to cost the city to get everyone to $15 and tell us examples of how we’ll pay for it — not if we’ll pay for it, but how we’ll pay for it,” said Councilwoman Helene Moreno, who sponsored the motion.

Councilman Joe Giarrusso added an amendment to the motion to require the CAO’s analysis to include “whether departments benefit by increasing staffing to rely less on contractors or whether using more contracted labor is beneficial.”

Councilman Jared Brossett also announced on Thursday that he plans to introduce another ordinance to direct the Civil Service Department — a city department that works with the commission — to complete a pay study and provide recommendations to Civil Service Commissioners on how to raise the minimum wage for city workers to $15 an hour. If the Civil Service Commission does raise the minimum wage, it likely won’t be as simple as just raising the wages of people making under $15 an hour. The commission may also have to increase pay for workers who currently make more than $15 an hour, but hold more senior positions than the workers being brought up to the $15 level. 

Some public commenters were a bit frustrated with the calls for studies and analyses when they say it is clear that pay below $15 an hour isn’t sufficient to live in New Orleans. 

“What I have here is five studies since 2011,” Mischler said. “They’re all saying the same thing — that we are drastically underpaid for the job that we do.”

Grant Rodriguez, another firefighter, said that he was a New Orleans native, that his family lived here and that he wanted to stay in the city, unlike other firefighters that have left for higher wages in other cities. But he said with his current wage of $13.53, he wasn’t making enough even after picking up a second job.

“I can’t afford a house, so that sucks,” he said. “This is what I want to do with my life, and I can’t do it here. So I’m gonna have to go somewhere else.”

The Living Wage Ordinance 

The city’s existing Living Wage Ordinance for city contractors became effective in 2016. The rate was originally $10.55 an hour and rose to its current rate of $11.19 an hour due to a clause in the law that automatically increases the rate every year to match inflation. 

The ordinance passed on Thursday will increase the rate to $13.25 an hour starting in 2022 and $15 an hour starting in 2023. The wage will still continue to climb every year after that based on inflation. 

The living wage applies to workers of employers who hold city contracts worth more than $25,000, as well as their subcontractors. The ordinance also covers employers that receive more than $100,000 of financial assistance — including grants, debt forgiveness and tax subsidies — in a 12-month period. 

The law stipulates that companies only have to pay their employees the living wage for the hours spent working on a project attached to the city contract or financial assistance. If an employer can’t differentiate between employees working on a city contract versus those that aren’t, then all of its employees are covered by the Living Wage Ordinance for the duration of the contract.

City employees

Raising the wage for direct city employees, meanwhile, will require action from the Civil Service Commission. 

The Civil Service Commission is supposed to shield city employment decisions from political influence. Out of the five commissioners, one is nominated through an employee election and confirmed by the City Council. The other four are nominated by the presidents or chancellors of local universities and confirmed by the council. 

But although the body is supposed to be non-political, multiple mayors have faced scrutiny for alleged interference with the commission.

In 2014, The Lens reported on former Commissioner Kevin Wildes and his apparently close relationship with officials in then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. Wildes, who served as the commission’s chair, was a key figure in the passage of a sweeping Landrieu-backed Civil Service overhaul.

Last year, The Lens reported on Cantrell’s quiet and successful campaign to replace former commission chair Michelle Craig, citing concerns that there was an overrepresentation of union interests on the commission. And the City Council ended up approving Craig’s replacement in apparent violation of the city’s Open Meetings Law. 

Cantrell’s administration also filed a complaint last year against the employee-nominated commissioner — currently firefighter Clifton Moore — with the State Board of Ethics last year over his refusal to recuse himself in a vote over emergency pay for public safety personnel during the coronavirus crisis. The city argued to the State Board of Ethics that it was a conflict of interest for Clifton to vote on any issue that impacted him financially as a city employee. 

Ultimately, it will likely be important to get the Cantrell administration on board in order to increase the minimum wage for city employees. 

“We must act,” Brossett said. “The administration must act. Civil Service must act.” 

This story has been updated with additional information from the Civil Service Department regarding the number of city employees currently receiving wages below $15 an hour.

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...