Rosa Rivera, a janitor at the Delta Air Lines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, got a raise this year.
Thanks to the passage of the living wage ordinance, her pay increased from $5.75 an hour to $7.60 an hour. Now, she said, she can purchase more clothes for her two young children.
"Before, I would pay the rent and then I couldn't get anything else," Rivera said. "My children had to borrow from others some of what they needed for school. Now, I can buy what they need."
Rivera is precisely the sort of worker who can benefit from the ordinance, which requires firms doing business with the city to pay their employees $7.50 an hour with benefits or $8.50 without benefits.
At the time, proponents said the law would greatly help the plight of L.A.'s working poor. Opponents argued that companies would be forced to lay off workers or shun city work altogether.
In fact, a little more than a year later, the ordinance has had a minimal impact on L.A.'s economy, bearing out neither the high hopes of its backers nor the dark fears of its detractors.
A new study by a UCLA law professor concludes that only about 750 workers have actually seen their wages go up under the ordinance. The study notes that about three times that number should have seen their wages increase by now, and it faults the city for failing to implement the ordinance properly.
On the other hand, the study found that there has been no case in which a contractor laid off workers directly because of the ordinance. In fact, some employers reported that by paying the higher wage, they were able to hire better-quality workers, which in turn has led to lower turnover.
Even if fully implemented, the ordinance would have a barely detectable impact on L.A.'s economy. Once all city contracts come up for renewal, it would cover only about 4,500 workers, about 1 percent of the total county workforce of 4.25 million.
"While it may have had a dramatic impact on the few hundred workers who are now seeing a living wage for the first time, it really is only a drop in the bucket," said Richard Sander, the study's principal author.
Even living wage proponents concede that the ordinance has not had a major economic impact. But they say it has served to galvanize the labor community and led unions to form new coalitions.
"We never thought that the living wage ordinance was going to be a magic bullet for all low-wage poverty in L.A.," said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, executive director of the Living Wage Coalition, the ordinance's chief sponsor. "But it is very important for a small group of workers and it is also important as a way to frame the issue of the working poor on a much bigger platform. We have been able to reach out to major developers in the city to pay a living wage."
She was referring to an agreement that TrizecHahn Corp. reached with the city to pay all its workers the living wage once its Hollywood and Highland retail center opens in a little more than two years.
In addition, the ordinance has become a central issue in union organizing drives, according to Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the L.A. County Federation of Labor.
"The fact that we got the living wage ordinance passed showed that labor could be successful," he said. "It has been a factor pushing the organizing efforts at the airport and other places."
But proponents say that more workers need to be covered. "The key now is to follow through and make sure the living wage works. And so far, that has been the big problem," Contreras said.
Indeed, the UCLA study shows that the city's living wage ordinance is not being implemented fully, leaving thousands of employees at firms doing business with the city at wages below the "living wage" level.
"Clearly, the ordinance is not operating as it should be," Sander said. "The city is not vigorously enforcing the ordinance. Businesses see this and conclude they can get away with not supplying payroll information and, ultimately, not paying a living wage."
Sander said the fault lies with the Bureau of Contract Administration, the city agency charged with implementing and enforcing the ordinance, and the office of City Attorney James K. Hahn, which the report says has been slow to clarify questions about the ordinance's language.
Only five site visits had been conducted in the first 12 months since the ordinance took effect, according to the report. "As a result, contractors theoretically covered by the Living Wage Ordinance have widely ignored the requirements," the report said.
There apparently has been some improvement in compliance since an earlier report was issued in May that found city departments routinely ignored the ordinance. A decision by City Controller Rick Tuttle not to process payment requests for departments that could not certify they were complying with the ordinance also spurred more departments to comply, the report said. And the BCA has stepped up its enforcement since the May report, paying more site visits and following up with companies to ensure that the correct paperwork has been filed.
BCA officials did not return phone calls for this story.
Senior Assistant City Attorney Fred Merkin said his office was working to clear up questions about the ordinance's language.
"I am optimistic that this issue will be resolved soon," Merkin said.
While Goldberg and living wage proponents are concerned about the delays, their biggest push now is in another direction ensuring that contractors hired by airlines that lease terminal space at city-owned airports pay their workers a living wage. So far, the airlines have resisted.
"The ordinance as it is written does not apply to operations at the airport," said David Berg, assistant general counsel for the Air Transport Association of America. "The living wage is paid to people who stand in for direct employees of the city, for functions that the city would otherwise provide. The city does not provide air transportation business."
But Goldberg said that in drafting the ordinance, she fully intended to cover airport contract workers.
"The city has been telling the airlines they should get in line and do the right thing," Goldberg said. "If they don't, we're going to have to come up with language that will go beyond even what I intended, to make sure that they cover their contract workers."
That could provide a replay of the bitter debate that ensued last year between labor and business groups over the wage hike. Already, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce has voiced strong opposition to an amendment Goldberg is sponsoring.
"This amendment will significantly expand the ordinance. It will cover not just the airlines but also businesses on Olvera Street that pay rent to the city, as well as businesses at the Los Angeles Mall (across from City Hall) and Ports O' Call (Village)," said Anita Zusman, legislative affairs director for the chamber.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.