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'Living wage' laws gain momentum across US

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THE number of workers affected by such laws is still small – perhaps 100,000. And such ordinances have been banned in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Missouri, Louisiana, and Oregon. But experts say the trend is gaining momentum because there's growing evidence to dispell the early fears that the benefits of substantial pay increases would be overshadowed by huge reductions in the number of jobs in the job categories effected. And they say the demise of other social safety nets, and lack of movement on the current federal minimum-wage law – stalled at $5.15 – are helping spur steady activity.

"Since the beginning of this movement, we kept hearing 'the sky will fall, the sky will fall,' " says Jen Kern, executive director of the Living Wage Resource Center for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). "Now those employers who thought they'd suffer are saying they get higher production from these employees, less turnover, more satisfaction ... and are able to service their clients better."

Pro-living-wage forces got a boost from a study released yesterday by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Done by an early skeptic of the benefit of living-wage laws, the report examined 36 cities with such laws – including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, New Haven, and San Jose. It found that slight job losses caused by the law are more than compensated by the decrease in family poverty.

"The steep wage increases [caused by living-wage laws] make it less likely that families with a living-wage worker will live in poverty, especially in cities where the law applies most broadly," says David Neumark, professor of economics at Michigan State University and author of the report. His study comes on the heels of others with similar findings in recent years. But despite the growth of such findings, some observers say, it's still too early to draw conclusions.

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