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Gauging the Benefits of a Living Wage in L.A.

Maria Mosqueda, center, at work at Los Angeles International Airport, where she operates wheelchairs.
Photos by Neva Grant, NPR
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Maria Mosqueda, center, at work at Los Angeles International Airport, where she operates wheelchairs.
Aida Guirgis, right, and her daughter Marianne. After a divorce, Guirgis was left to raise three children on welfare. Now, with a higher-wage retail job at LAX, she is off government support and out of debt.
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Aida Guirgis, right, and her daughter Marianne. After a divorce, Guirgis was left to raise three children on welfare. Now, with a higher-wage retail job at LAX, she is off government support and out of debt.

A few years ago, many of the low-wage salespeople at the Los Angeles International Airport would have been known as the working poor. They were paid minimum wage and rarely earned enough to afford the souvenirs and small luxuries they sell at LAX.

In 1997, Los Angeles became one of the first cities in the country to pass a living wage law. It raised pay and benefits for those who work for the city or for businesses that contract with the city. Now, entry-level jobs at the airport start at $9 or $10 an hour.

Maria Mosqueda's job operating wheelchairs at the airport helped her qualify for a loan to buy a house big enough for her and her husband, three sons, two daughters-in-law and a baby grandson.

Dozens of municipalities -- and some states -- have raised hourly wages above the federal minimum. Many others are considering it. That movement has been driven by a simple -- and controversial idea: to bring working people out of poverty, pay them more.

Opponents of living wage measures say the ordinances hurt job creation, especially for lesser-educated, low-skilled workers. And for some workers, a higher paycheck could mean losing other forms of support, such as Medicaid, special tax breaks and foods stamps.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.