Workers feel effects of living-wage bill veto

May 28, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

JUST PAST 4 o'clock each afternoon, La Toria Fayall says goodbye to her three small children, locks the door to her rented rowhouse on East 37th Street, and begins the long trek to work. For the next two hours, her 10-year old, Danisha, will look after Dishaye, 6, and Tihjay, 3. Whatever God in heaven looks out for small children should cast a few protective glances their way.

From 37th Street, Fayall walks to Ellerslie Avenue and waits for the No. 36 bus. The bus takes her to North and Greenmount, which is nobody's picnic area. There, Fayall waits for the arrival of a van. It is provided by her employer, Broadway Services, whose driver navigates to Owings Mills, in distant northwest Baltimore County, where Fayall begins work at Maryland Public Television.

The job is described as "housekeeping." It consists of emptying trash cans, sweeping, vacuuming, and cleaning offices, studios and lavatories. It pays $6 an hour. That is $4.50 an hour below the level that most state legislators believe should be the minimum for state contractors to pay their employees. But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. believes otherwise, and this week he made his belief stand up.

Ehrlich vetoed the so-called living-wage bill that would have raised the minimum hourly pay to $10.50 for those private employees who work under state contracts. A 2003 Gonzales poll said 63 percent of Marylanders supported that bill. So did the General Assembly, which passed the measure last month.

Ehrlich's thinking was different. He said the bill would be bad for the state's business climate. State legislators, operating from a different perspective, checked the landscape and noticed a half-million people in Maryland living below the poverty line. They also wondered why the state pays hundreds of millions of dollars on these service contracts to private companies and winds up with so many workers who are unable to pay for their families, unable to afford a simple service such as baby-sitting for small children -- and, in many cases, have to turn to the state for some other form of financial assistance.

La Toria Fayall's job lasts four hours each night. At 10 p.m., the company van takes her back to Greenmount and North, where she stands at that rough corner at the end of the night, in heat and cold and exhaustion, and waits for the arrival of the bus to take her back to Ellerslie Avenue, where she walks the rest of the way home.

This is how it works on the good nights, when everything goes according to plan.

"I've got to find another place to live," Fayall, 27, was saying now. She sat at a little kitchen table, in stifling heat Wednesday morning, and fanned herself with a newspaper. Over half an hour, she stopped fanning only long enough to wipe perspiration from her forehead.

"Another place?" she was asked.

"Where the neighbors don't be so nosy," she said. "They always got to be in your business."

They are nosy, she said, when she leaves the three children each afternoon. They are alone from their mother's departure at 4 p.m. until the arrival, two hours later, of Fayall's estranged husband, who comes to the house when he leaves his own job. He stays until Fayall returns each night.

Hiring a baby sitter for those two missing hours each afternoon is not a financial option. At best, Fayall's job brings in about $105 a week after taxes. The husband, she says, contributes $63 in child support every two weeks. Such money lets Fayall pay her $138 Section 8 monthly rent, her monthly $73 gas and electric bill, her $65 telephone bill, the $16 in weekly bus fares, and the food bills for the whole family. When she took the $6-an-hour job, Fayall says, Social Services cut her off from food stamps.

"I get food whenever I have loose money to go," she said. "I go to the Save-A-Lot over on 21st Street, where they've got pretty good prices." She looked at the kitchen floor, where her youngest, Tihjay, happily played with a toy train.

"What kind of food?" she was asked.

"Ground turkey," she said. "Chicken wings, bologna and cheese, Oodles of Noodles. And then, once a year when I get my tax money back, I binge on food. I'll buy a big meat bundle for, like, $239, and that'll last for a while."

So it goes in a state where the government hires contractors, and the contractors pay such puny wages as to make poverty a permanent condition among those who work for them. The governor, vetoing the living-wage bill, said it could force contractors to decrease their work forces to pay for the higher wages. But a living-wage law took effect in Baltimore in 1995, and a Johns Hopkins University study found that the cost of service contracts rose by 1.2 percent as a result -- less than the rate of inflation.

Backers of the bill point out that it would affect only contractors doing more than $100,000 business with the state -- about 600 large contractors, affecting only about 20 percent of the $889 million in state service contracts.

Which leaves us with about half a million Marylanders such as La Toria Fayall, making do on $6 for a 20-hour workweek while she cares for three small children. She leaves the house at 4 in the afternoon to catch that No. 36 bus. But not every afternoon.

"Sometimes," she said, "I don't have bus money, so I walk to Greenmount and North." The bus ride costs $1.60. The walk takes about 90 minutes. Soon, when the schools break for summer vacation, all three of her children will be home all day. And we will have people working for an unlivable wage because $10.50 is somehow "bad for business" -- which is not the same thing as "bad for people trying to make a living."

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