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)

A joint committee of the New Orleans City Council — which included all seven council members — unanimously advanced an ordinance on Thursday that orders the city’s Civil Service Department to evaluate and make recommendations about how to best achieve a $15 an hour minimum wage for city workers.

The measure still technically needs approval from the full City Council, but given the unanimous approval from all seven council members, that appears all but inevitable. 

The move won’t guarantee an increase to $15 an hour, but it will pave the road to make that happen. And that road looked a lot smoother on Thursday when top deputy for Mayor LaToya Cantrell signaled the administration’s support.

“I think we’re an advocate for a $15 wage increase, it’s just about figuring out the methodology to achieving that,” said the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño. “From the administration’s perspective, this is not going to be an adversarial conversation. We are supportive of ensuring our workers are well paid.”

Last week, the New Orleans City Council approved an amendment to the city’s Living Wage Ordinance that will guarantee wages of at least $15 an hour for city contractors by 2023. The current living wage is set at $11.19 an hour. 

That move didn’t face any staunch opposition, but it did draw frustration from some city workers who said that a $15 minimum wage should be applied to direct city employees as well, not just the employees of city contractors.

The City Council can’t raise the wages of city workers by itself. Those decisions are controlled by the Civil Service Commission, a semi-independent body that is supposed to shield personnel decisions from political influence. But the City Council is making some moves to push the commission to approve a $15 minimum wage for city workers.

Along with the ordinance considered on Thursday, the council also approved a resolution last week asking Montaño to provide the council with an analysis by mid-August of how much it would cost to increase the minimum wage for direct city employees to $15 an hour.

That study isn’t done yet, but Montaño gave some preliminary figures on Thursday. According to his presentation, there are 992 city employees who make a base wage of less than $15 an hour. That includes 232 fire department employees, 282 “seasonal summer employees” with the New Orleans Recreation and Development Commission and 478 employees in various other city departments. 

Montaño’s presentation said that the hourly wages of some of those 232 fire department employees rise to above $15 when you factor in the $6,000 supplemental pay that firefighters receive directly from the State of Louisiana. 

Montaño and representatives from the Civil Service Department said that raising the wages of workers who make under $15 an hour isn’t as simple as raising wages just for those employees. One key issue will be what’s referred to as “compression.” Compression is when pay increases for lower paid employees erases or minimizes pay differences between those employees and more senior, higher-paid employees. 

Montaño said the city wanted to maintain a 5 percent pay difference between employees and supervisors and between different jobs within a “job series.” Several speakers, including city employees who spoke at the meeting, appeared to support the idea of maintaining wage differences depending on job level and seniority. 

But Councilman Jared Brosset, who sponsored Thursday’s ordinance, raised some doubts about compression . 

“This idea of compression is an antiquated idea,” Brossett said. “I think it creates poverty, the idea of keeping some people at the bottom.”

Trash Collection

Also on Thursday, the City Council spent over two hours discussing trash collection issues. Late trash pickups have been a problem throughout the city in recent months. But the issues have been especially bad in the area covered by Metro Service Group, according to the Department of Public Works Director Matt Torri.

The city’s garbage collection is split into three service areas, each of which is handled by a separate contractor. The smallest of the three areas covers the French Quarter and Downtown 

Development District with an estimated 4,311 “service units,” or residences. 

The rest of the city is cut roughly in half. Metro Service Group covers the area north of Interstate-10 — excluding the French Quarter and Downtown Development District — with an estimated 66,281 addresses. The areas south of Interstate-10 is covered by Richard’s Disposal and includes 69,700 estimated addresses. 

Metro’s co-founder and CEO, Jimmy Woods, was in the council chamber on Thursday and explained that the main issue they were facing was a lack of truck drivers with valid commercial driver’s licenses. 

“This is a statewide issue, frankly it’s a nationwide issue,” Woods said. “There’s tremendous competition for those guys.”

Woods said they plan to be back on schedule by the end of the month by getting help from other garbage disposal companies, increasing driver pay to $17 an hour and adding new outreach and recruitment efforts. He also said that Metro would be bringing in drivers from out of the region to help pick up the slack.

While the council discussed the issue at length on Thursday, they didn’t actually discuss the ordinance on the agenda — an ordinance to suspend one monthly garbage collection charge that New Orleans residents pay on their monthly Sewerage and Water Board bills. The charge for a single family residential property is $24 a month. The ordinance would suspend that payment on August bills. 

Cutting that charge for a month would lead to a revenue loss of roughly $3 million to $4 million, according to Montaño. That money goes to pay the city’s three garbage collection contractors, who have contracts worth a combined $25 million, he said. 

Montaño was the only one at Thursday’s meeting to even briefly touch upon the ordinance, indicating he was opposed.

“We certainly see significant challenges with what is currently on the table,” he said. 

The council didn’t take a vote on the ordinance. Instead, the ordinance will skip the committee vote and go straight to consideration by the full City Council next week. City Council legislation is typically approved at the committee level before going to the full council, but it isn’t legally required. 

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...