ST. PETERSBURG — A couple of months ago, city officials heaped praise on a local banker who announced he was going to start paying all his employees a "living wage."
City Council member Wengay Newton invited the CEO of C1 Bank to City Hall chambers to accept the Extra Mile Award for paying his employees at least $14 an hour.
"This does a lot. For all the people watching who think that it's going to kill the world if you start paying people a living wage or if you raise the minimum wage, this is proof positive from a company that is right here in St. Petersburg," Newton said. "Hopefully we'll encourage or shame other people into doing the same."
Council member Karl Nurse said it's a signal to workers that they matter.
"The dominant business model is to pay as little as you can," he said. "I hope that what you have done ripples, because it's a big deal."
Whether they knew it or not then, council members had just keyed in on a salient point many of the city's own workers hope to make in the coming months.
On Friday, the union that represents about 1,200 blue- and white-collar St. Petersburg workers met with city labor officials for the year's first contract negotiating session.
At the top of the union's agenda? A proposal to raise the base pay for city workers to $15 an hour.
A little more than 300 full- and part-time city workers are making less than that right now, city data shows.
"This is a huge opportunity for the city," said Rick Smith, chief of staff for the Florida Public Services Union. "It can lead by example by bringing up the bottom. This is where the city can make a huge difference, and we think it's time to start talking about this."
Smith said it would cost the city about $1 million to implement the living wage.
Mayor Rick Kriseman has said he wanted to give employees raises this year.
"I've been informed at this point the offer would be 2 percent," Kristen Mory, the city's labor relations and compensation manager told Smith, who was flanked by several sanitation, water and fleet workers at the session. "You can expect something in the range of that."
In order to make their point, union officials handed over information from the Living Wage Calculator, an online tool developed by Amy Glasmeier, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The living wage in St. Petersburg for a family of one adult and one child is $20.11, according to the calculator.
The union said the pay for the 308 people making less than $15 an hour ranges from $9.12 to $14.95 per hour.
About two-thirds work full time, and there's a nearly even split among white- and blue-collar-type jobs. Many work in departments like recreation and parks, Smith said.
"I just can't see the logic in why you wouldn't want to pay someone enough to live on," said Brian Brehm, a union industrial mechanic who works at a city water treatment plant. "Why aren't they embarrassed and apologetic about the fact that people work for the city and are in poverty?"
The union also wants the city to sign a "ban the box" ordinance like the one adopted in Jacksonville, which would not allow the city to disqualify a person from being hired solely because of a criminal conviction.
The union also wants the city to bring more uniformity to its step program for wages and consider creating an apprenticeship program.
Mory said she would take the ideas back to her boss, Human Resources Director Chris Guella.
"I'm not sure he'll take that to the mayor right now," she said.
The union and city will meet again in two weeks.
Momentum for a living wage may be on the workers' side, said professor Glasmeier, who has been studying poverty, specifically living wages, for 12 years.
For months, low-wage food and service workers across the country have protested about their earnings. The Seattle City Council this month voted to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour.
"For five years we have all been terrified we could drop back into a terrible recession," Glasmeier said. "So I think people feel fundamentally more vulnerable but are saying . . . we can't do this anymore."
Glasmeier said a living wage is the key for people to climb out of poverty or even move into the middle class.
Incomes for most Americans have stayed flat for decades, she said.
"They have no savings. Their kids are taking loans for college. And the have credit card debt," she said. "You pay people a living wage and they do a better job."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com, (727) 893-8643 or on Twitter @cornandpotatoes.