Clarkston first Georgia city to set $15 minimum hourly wage

Clarkston's City Hall: the city government is exploring whether to decriminalize marijuana possession.

Clarkston's City Hall: the city government is exploring whether to decriminalize marijuana possession.

Clarkston became the first Georgia city this week to mandate a minimum $15 an hour minimum wage for its employees.

While the City Council’s unanimous vote only impacts three public works employees, the small DeKalb County town’s decision is both significant and symbolic as the nation wrestles with paying low-wage workers a so-called living wage.

“These are the guys out there in 100 degree temperatures mowing lawns and picking up trash,” said Ted Terry, mayor of Clarkston. “The (increase) will not only allow us to keep good quality workers, but also expand the pool of eligible workers because we’re willing to pay a decent wage.”

State law prohibits municipalities from mandating a minimum wage for private-sector workers and those who contract to do work for a city or county. Georgia’s official minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, but few workers make so little. Larger cities, like Atlanta, typically pay their full-time employees well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Nationwide, the push for a so-called living wage of $15 an hour for all workers gains momentum. Washington, D.C. last month mandated that restaurant, retail and other service industry employers pay a minumum $15-an-hour wage. Roughly 50 cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, have passed similar rules in recent years.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders support a $15 an hour minimum. Hundreds of low-wage Atlanta workers, with the backing of unions, have rallied outside McDonald’s and other fast-food joints the last few years demanding higher wages.

The Employment Policies Institute, and other conservative groups, say a $15 minimum wage will lead to higher prices, layoffs and automation of jobs.

Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association, said Clarkston is the first city in Georgia to mandate $15 an hour. Few Georgia cities seem likely to soon mimic the city, a diverse and progressive burg of 8,000 residents on Atlanta’s eastern edge. Council members, for example, also voted this week to decriminalize possession of marijuana — another Georgia first.

City council members achieved the $15 an hour minimum by granting the three public works employees a six percent merit pay increase. The mayor said the pay raise will cost taxpayers less than $4,000 a year. The city’s remaining 27 workers, including police officers, got a 4 percent pay increase.

“It’s a small step, but we’ve got to start somewhere,” said Terry, a vice chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia.