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Organic Consumers Association

Proposal Seeks a Break for Low-Wage Workers

YONKERS - A SINGLE mother of two grown children, Deborah Smith puts in 46 hours a week as a home health aide - a job she has held for more than 20 years - yet barely makes ends meet.

Earning $9.38 an hour for her union job, Ms. Smith, 47, said her pay is quickly consumed by rent, insurance and bus fare. The Yonkers resident lives in one of the city's public housing projects, rounds out meals with help from local food pantries and regularly borrows a few dollars from her sister.

With no money left for extras, Ms. Smith splurges only on cable TV. Her son-in-law, a barber, cuts her hair free.

"It's very hard living in the gracious City of Yonkers at $9.38 an hour," said Ms. Smith, who is the treasurer of the Westchester-Putnam Working Families Party. "It's not enough."

Ms. Smith is one of the thousands of Yonkers workers at the crux of a continuing debate in the city about a "living wage" proposal that would make Yonkers the first Westchester municipality to increase the hourly wage above the state minimum. The issue, being debated once again at City Hall, pits advocates for low-wage workers who support the idea against opponents who argue a wage increase will keep businesses away at a time of unprecedented economic development.

The proposal - which in the last year has been approved by the City Council and vetoed by Mayor Philip A. Amicone twice - would require larger businesses to pay their employees at least $11.85 an hour, and $1.50 toward health or other benefits, which is above the state minimum wage of $7.15.

That increase would bring an individual working full time up to the Westchester County poverty line, said Chuck Lesnick, the City Council president, who is a lawyer and supporter of the wage increase. The law, Mr. Lesnick said, is meant not only to help longtime workers like Ms. Smith but also to set a new standard for the owners of retail stores and other businesses expected to come into the city.

The aging Cross County Shopping Center is under renovation. A new mall at Ridge Hill is hoping to lure high-end retailers, and the plans for downtown mixed retail and real estate developments near the Yonkers waterfront are under way.

"The idea is that the rising tide lifts all boats, so we want to make sure that everybody is getting a little bit," Mr. Lesnick said.

Opponents, however, say that increasing the cost of doing business in Yonkers could deter retailers from moving into the city at a time when the city is trying to court them.

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