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$17 per hour min wage promises a healthier city, officials say

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$17 per hour min wage promises a healthier city, officials say
Monica Valdes Lupis, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, presented a health impact assessment of the living wage ordinance. (Photo: Photo: Office of Mayor Martin Walsh)

Fight for 15 activists have made headlines during the past year with calls for a $15 minimum hourly wage. Last week, the Boston Public Health Commission unveiled a report that could add fuel to the cause. After analyzing the city’s nearly 20-year-old Living Wage Ordinance, the BPHC concluded that the actual hourly wage needed for a family to survive in Boston is closer to $17. Subsequently, the BPHC recommended the living wage be raised and that the LWO’s purview be expanded so more employers are required to pay at this level. If enacted, the reform would bring significant physical and mental health benefits to city residents, the report predicted.

At the behest of labor advocates, community activists and faith leaders, the Living Wage Ordinance was passed in 1998. Its goal: to ensure those Boston workers falling under its coverage were compensated at least enough to live at the poverty line. But the new analysis reveals that the LWO was applied only to a very limited segment of workers and currently lags behind the financial needs of residents facing today’s higher costs.

By the numbers

Expected results from raising the Living Wage Ordinance from approximately $14 to approximately $17:

43 percent drop in diabetes

11.5 percent drop in adult asthma

9.5 percent drop in hypertension

62 percent drop in persistent sadness

30 percent drop in persistent anxiety

30 percent drop in food insecurity and hunger

“The living wage ordinance was originally passed almost 20 years ago to give workers a better chance at making a living in Boston,” said Monica Valdes Lupi, BPHC executive director, in a press release. “While it may have succeeded initially in achieving its goal, it now falls short.”

Boosting the living wage from $14.11 to approximately $17 per hour could significantly reduce rates of some chronic diseases and increase workers’ quality of life, according to the BPHC report. The BPHC anticipates a decrease in hunger, mental health conditions such as persistent sadness and anxiety and diseases such as diabetes and asthma. According to the American Diabetes Association, in 2010 diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.

People of color particularly stand to gain from a more robust Living Wage Ordinance, the report states, as they are disproportionately represented among Boston’s low-wage workers.

Limits of LWO

The LWO requires that certain employers pay their workers at least $14.11 per hour. In its current state, the LWO only applies to vendors that hold service contracts with the city, and only establishes a base wage for employees working under those contracts. Any other employees the vendors have are not protected. Employers with contracts below a certain value — originally $100,000, then reduced to $25,000 in 2001 — or with a number of full-time employees below a certain amount, also are exempt.

Only 600 workers currently benefit from the LWO under these criteria. About half of those are minorities. Nearly half of the LWO-assisted workers are female and more than a quarter are parents.

A survival wage

The BPHC report recommends several changes. First, $14.11 is no longer enough for families to afford life’s necessities in Boston, it states. Even the the $15 per hour for which many activists have been clamoring for does not go far enough. Based on 2013 data, for a family of four to earn an income “just sufficient to cover housing, childcare, transportation and other basic needs,” in Boston, two members must be employed full-time in jobs that pay at least $16.96 per hour. This wage is expected to leave nothing left over for retirement savings, emergencies or large one-time expenditures such as medical bills or car repairs, the report states. For a single parent with a toddler-aged child to afford such basic necessities, he or she must earn $25 per hour.

The minimum wage in Massachusetts currently is $10 per hour.

More of a good idea

BPHC also proposes widening the scope of the LWO to apply to quasi-independent city agencies, “businesses that hold large leases with the city, business that benefit from tax credits and those that receive city-subsidized financing,” as well as to cover all city employees.

An expansion also may bring LWO coverage to more minorities. Although low-wage jobs in Boston disproportionately are held by people of color, Bostonians working in the industries most likely to be subject to the current LWO are primarily white, according to the report. This group of workers is 66 percent white, 16 percent black and 15 percent Latino.

Health benefits

The report estimates that an increase in the living wage from $14 to $17 would cause a 43 percent reduction in the number of Bostonians suffering from diabetes, 11.5 percent reduction in asthma sufferers and 9.5 percent in those afflicted with hypertension. Cases of food insecurity and hunger are expected to fall by 30 percent.

In part, these benefits could be achieved by reducing how many extra hours or jobs people have to work to get by. More free time means more time for exercise and an expected reduction in stress — which in turn reduces damaging stress hormones. It could mean more time to cook at home and seek out healthy foods. It would mean more money for purchasing fruits and vegetables as well as medicine and health care.

The latter is especially significant: According to national data, the rate of asthma among black adults is higher than the national average, and blacks are more likely than whites to report cost as an obstacle to seeing a primary care physician or getting medication. Blacks are nearly three times more likely to die as a result of asthma than whites, a disparity especially troubling as “early and adequate treatment has made asthma deaths by and large preventable,” the report stated.

The report’s authors also anticipated that if LWO-covered wages increase to $17 per hour, the number of people reporting sadness that persists for more than 30 days would drop by 62 percent, while the number reporting persistent anxiety would drop by 30 percent.

In 2013, a higher percentage of residents with household incomes below $25,000 reported persistent sadness or anxiety than did residents with household incomes of $50,000 or more. Reports also were higher among those receiving rental assistance than those not, and more public housing residents reported persistent sadness.

According to a city press release, Walsh and health officials will explore ways to expand and better enforce the LWO.