When Jerry Gonzalez went to work for the city of San Antonio in the early 1980s, he made a little more than $6 an hour doing electrical work. It was a far cry from the $10 an hour he could make doing contract work full-time, but with a wife and three kids at home — one just 3 months old — he had to have a job that offered health insurance.
“I was losing, in take-home pay, $400 a month,” Gonzalez, 64, recently said. Working for the city, he made about $33,000 a year, adjusting for inflation.
To make ends meet, he took on side jobs for more than two decades, grabbing his tools after work and heading to contract jobs, where he installed air conditioning units, did electrical work on phones, televisions, and took advantage of “whatever came [his] way.”
He also took night courses to keep up with changes in technology, eventually becoming a network administrator maintaining the phone and computer systems for the city.
Now retired, Gonzalez was one of about a dozen people who attended a San Antonio City Council meeting in early August to support a wage increase that would put more money in the pockets of the city’s lowest-paid public employees.
“I’m fighting for the single parents, for the young couple that is just too busy trying to make ends meet,” he said.
A provision in the city budget, recommended by City Manager Sheryl Sculley, would increase the hourly wage for about 900 of the city’s lowest-paid employees from $11.47 — what the city deems a “living wage” — to $13 an hour.
Both the city and Bexar County are expected to vote on wage increases next month, and the initiatives are expected to pass. That puts San Antonio among a growing number of Texas localities trying to raise the living standards of their workers.
In September, the Austin City Council is set to vote on a minimum wage hike for its employees to about $13 an hour. If passed, San Antonio and Austin would have the highest minimum wages for city workers in Texas, putting the two cities on par with San Francisco and Chicago.
But while those cities have instituted a minimum wage increase for all employees in both the public and private sectors, the Texas Legislature bars municipalities from setting private wages above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. Texas cities and counties can set wages only for public employees and workers for contractors hired by the city or county.
The fight to pay workers a “living wage” — the amount of money a person needs in order to have adequate housing, food and other basic amenities — has been playing out in cities across the country.
In Houston, city workers now make at least $12 an hour and are expected to make $13.55 by 2018. In Dallas, the city council could approve a measure, drafted by city staff, that would set minimum wages for contract workers and employees of vendors at $10.37 an hour. Currently, they are only required to be paid the federal hourly standard of $7.25.
Two groups in San Antonio, Communities Organized for Public Service and the Metro Alliance or COPS/Metro and the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have been lobbying behind the scenes for the higher wages.
“We don’t think that public sector employees should be on public assistance,” said Jorge Montiel, a lead organizer with COPS/Metro, a coalition of congregations, schools and unions that has been lobbying both county and city government officials to increase wages for its employees for more than a year. The group has already helped win higher wages at Alamo Colleges, a community college system.
Montiel said that while San Antonio has a 4 percent unemployment rate — 1.5 percent lower than the national average — the city still struggles with poverty.
“Twenty percent of residents live in poverty, that’s one out of every five,” he said recently. “It’s a situation where there are lots of jobs and people are working, but poverty remains and the explanation is that we’re still a low-wage town.”
Montiel said the goal is to increase hourly wages for city and county employees in the next three years to $14.91 — about $31,000 a year, the minimum wage necessary to keep a family of four off food stamps.
The group’s plan also calls on the city to continue funding Project Quest, a workforce development program that helps low-income participants pay for college tuition, books, transportation and childcare needed to bump up their skills so they can make higher wages. The city budget includes $1.5 million to continue Project Quest.
At the City Council meeting, most council members applauded the wage increases.
At a press conference, Ray Lopez, who represents residents in the far west side of town, said the wage hike represented a step in the right direction but he tempered the excitement of the crowd, made up of COPS/Metro supporters and organizers.
“We have not arrived — not at $13,” he said from a podium in the shade. “We talk about living wages but we need to talk about quality-of-life wages.”
Lopez said at the City Council meeting that a “quality-of-life-wage,” presumably higher than $13 an hour, would keep workers from having to hold down two or three jobs in order to make ends meet.
He added at the press conference that it was important to continue fighting for yearly increases and that public support would come by illuminating the struggle of working families.
Belinda Román, an adjunct economics professor at St. Mary’s University, pointed out that debates about increasing the minimum wage often rely on the outdated idea that such jobs are simply stepping stones in a career.
“These were entry-level jobs and you were supposed to be able to move on but life moved on,” Román said. “Your cars got more expensive and the house got more expensive, and the jobs didn’t catch up.”
A similar theme has emerged at City Hall. San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, who was elected by courting conservative voters, said at the council meeting that she supported the wage increase but stressed that it needed to be tied to efforts to improve employee job skills.
“I believe that we have to have a balanced approach that really works toward workforce development,” she said.
It was the first time Taylor had made public comments in support of the wage increase.
“Of the four leading candidates [for mayor], Ivy Taylor was the only one who did not commit to it,” Montiel said.
Sculley said the city could not make commitments “at this time” to a future wage increase to $15 an hour.
For Gonzalez, who is affiliated with SEIU, the wage increase is a “step in the right direction.”
“At least we’re having this conversation now,” he said, with a shrug. “I wish that 25 years ago I had someone fighting for me.”