Aaron Mischler, president of the New Orleans Fire Fighters Association, speaks at a Aug. 16, 2021 rally outside City Hall for a $15 minimum wage for city workers. (Micheal Isaac Stein/The Lens)

There appears to be widespread political support among New Orleans city officials — including the City Council and Mayor LaToya Cantrell — to raise the minimum wage for all city employees to $15 an hour by 2022. And on Thursday, the Cantrell administration presented the council with an outline for how much it’s going to cost.

“What I can say emphatically is that the mayor is in absolute support of a living wage,” Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño told the council. 

The wage increases aren’t yet final, and still need to be approved in the city’s 2022 budget by the City Council later this year, as well as by the Civil Service Commission. But with such strong support, the wage hikes appear likely. 

Montaño explained that the most complicated factor in determining the full price tag of the wage increases was related to firefighter pay, which is structured differently than in other departments.

Most firefighters’ base salaries are supplemented with funding from a dedicated property tax and a state fund. When those are taken into account, many firefighters whose base wages are below $15 an hour are, in fact, making more than that. Although even inclusive of those supplemental wages, there are still dozens of Fire Department employees making less than $15 an hour.

Given the complex pay structure, Montaño presented four different options for how to address firefighter salaries. Those plans have costs ranging from $280,000 a year to $11.3 million a year. It appears that the city firefighters union is supportive of a plan that would cost $3.9 million.

Raising the wages of the rest of the city workforce would cost $6.2 million, according to the presentation. If the city does end up going with the $3.9 million plan for firefighters, the total cost of raising all city worker wages to $15 an hour would be $10.1 million. (Montaño said the analysis didn’t include Sewerage and Water Board workers.)

Not including the Fire Department, there are currently 687 city workers making less than $15 an hour, according to the presentation. If those employees’ wages are raised to $15 an hour, there are another 308 employees that would also receive higher wages through a process called “compression.”

Compression is when raises for lower-paid employees erase or minimize pay differences between those employees and more senior employees. The city has said it wants to maintain a 5 percent pay differential between supervisors and subordinates, as well as between jobs that are considered to be in the same class, or “series” under Civil Service rules. 

In total, the wage increases would affect 995 workers, excluding the Fire Department. Those workers would receive an average annual salary increase of $4,941, according to the presentation.

The most impacted city department is the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission. 

“NORD is most impacted because of the high number of seasonal staff they employ, and additionally there are a number of staff at rec centers that make less than $15 an hour,” Montaño said. 

Other departments with significant numbers of employees making less than $15 an hour include the Department of Public Works, the Police Department, the Department of Parks and Parkways, the New Orleans Aviation Board, the Public Library and the Sanitation Department. 

Fire Department pay

Firefighter pay is structured differently than most city jobs in two key ways. 

First, they aren’t paid on a 35- or 40-hour a week schedule, as many city employees are. According to Civil Service rules, their schedules average out to 53 hours per week. Firefighter pay is calculated based on a 212-hour, 28-day work month, of which there are 13 per year.

Second, annual firefighter wages are made up of three components. The biggest chunk is the base pay that comes out of the city’s general fund. Firefighters also get additional pay through a dedicated property tax and $6,000 a year in supplemental income from the state of Louisiana.

The number of firefighters making less than $15 an hour depends on which sources of income are taken into account. Only looking at base pay income, there are 234 fire department employees making less than $15 an hour, according to the city’s Personnel Director Amy Trepagnier.

But when you include the property tax and state supplemental pay, that number drops to 45, Trepagnier said. She said those 45 firefighters and recruits make less because they have less than a year of service and are therefore ineligible for state supplemental pay. 

If the city wanted to raise wages to $15 an hour only considering base pay rates, the cost would be at least $9.8 million. It would cost $11.3 million if the city wanted to ensure a 5 percent differential in pay between recruits and the lowest paid firefighters. 

If the city wanted to raise wages above $15 an hour taking into account all three sources of income, the cost would only be $280,000. 

The most popular option seems to be to raise wages to $15 an hour taking into account base pay and the extra property tax wages, but not the state supplemental pay. That scenario would cost the city $3.9 million.

Councilwoman Helena Moreno said that was an important scenario to consider since it accounts for all the sources of money under the city’s control. Aaron Mischler, president of the New Orleans Fire Fighters Association, said during public comment that he agreed the city should be focused on the wages it controls directly.

“The state supplemental is not a guarantee,” he said. “That comes from the state and could be taken away any time they decide to make cuts.”

Mischler said he understood the city’s need to balance higher wages and the city’s limited resources.

“If it was between us really pushing for that $11.3 million, which would mean the rest of city workers would be left out, we couldn’t really deal with that either. So [the $3.9 million option] looks like it would work for us and the rest of the city workers and bring all of us up together. And that’s what we support and ask you to support.”

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...