Austin City Council considers raising base wage for city workers

Austin City Council is considering raising the city’s "living wage," the baseline wage for city workers, from $15 to $22 an hour.

"We have got to raise the wage for these workers, please," said Carol Guthrie, business manager with AFSCME Local 1624.

Council members got an earful Tuesday from the Living Wage Working Group, made up of unions and workers’ advocates, on why they say the living wage needs to be increased to $22 in the upcoming city budget. It’s been stuck at $15 since 2018.

"The high cost of living makes it difficult for city employees to live in the city that they work in," said Minerva Camarena-Skeith of Central Texas Interfaith.

The proposed change would apply to most city workers, from construction workers to airport employees to lifeguards, as well as workers for companies contracted by the city or companies which receive tax abatements. Departments citywide are plagued with high vacancy rates, as they lose workers to higher-paying private-sector jobs.

"$22 an hour is a starting place. We believe that it's still not a living wage," said Fabiola Barreto, Austin Policy Coordinator with the Workers Defense Project.

$22 an hour amounts to $45,760 a year. City Manager Spencer Cronk estimates the increase would cost the city between $18.2 and $22.8 million.

"We have a goal now to house 3,000 individuals experiencing homelessness, and I would hate to go short of that because we've raised wages," said District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly.

"The tradeoff might involve people losing their jobs," said Mayor Pro-Tem Alison Alter.

But others say $22 is a must.

"For me, it's not a conversation of if we're going to do this, but how we're going to do this," said District 8 Council Member Paige Ellis.

"We have to raise the wage," said District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes.

The city will get input in the coming weeks on whether that increase should be part of the final budget.

Meanwhile, many believe housing is just as important as wages when it comes to Austin’s affordability crisis. Some council members say they are feeling the pinch themselves.

"My rent, upon renewal, went up hundreds of dollars," said Kelly.

Council advanced two resolutions Tuesday. One to make it easier to build additional units on a homeowner’s property, and another to amend the Land Development Code to increase housing capacity. Those measures are both expected to get final approval Thursday.

But some argue more needs to be done, and fast.

"We have failed. We didn't build enough housing here," said District 3 Council Member Sabino "Pio" Renteria.

"If we don't make drastic, bold moves toward housing capacity, you're not going to be able to afford to live here," said District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison.