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September 20, 2014

The QueQue

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The QueQue: Ramen noodles, Bexar County, and wage theft, LGBT discrimination and SA city codes, Bernal driving out the moneychangers

Ramen noodles, Bexar County, and wage theft

"This is an unusual project," said David Marquez, Director of Bexar County Economic Development when asked about his efforts to entice Maruchan, Inc., to San Antonio. The Japan-based manufacturer of Ramen noodles and other high-sodium foods is considering building a factory in southwest Bexar County. The facility would bring tax revenues and jobs to the area. But as San Antonio considers its place in the low-wage economy, the question is: what kind of jobs?

San Antonio got a peek at those kind of jobs early June when the U.S. Department of Labor concluded an investigation into prominent San Antonio car wash, the Wash Tub. According to investigators, the company had made illegal deductions from employees' paychecks, had failed to pay overtime, and had not appropriately recorded the hours worked by employees. Following the investigation, the Wash Tub paid a total of $246,438 in back wages to 308 employees — an average pay-out of about $800 for each worker. "The lower the wage, the more vulnerable workers are," said Juan Coria, director of the San Antonio District Office for the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division.

Maruchan, Inc. plans to employ about 60 people at the plant and rely on contractors to staff another 600 positions. Most of those contract jobs would pay little more than the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The county is considering a package of $5.8 million in tax incentives for Maruchan, Inc. to build its plant on Fischer Road. The low wages being offered by the company's contractors have raised questions as to whether the county government should incentivize such a project. The county's own guidelines require a company receiving a tax abatement to pay at least a living wage, currently pegged at $10.75 per hour. To get around County guidelines, the company is not being offered an abatement but a grant, which does not have a living-wage stipulation. "We are still concerned about the minimum-wage side," said Marquez.

"We're starting to address some of those issues. The contractor should be paying a living wage."

While any deal would require the final approval of the county commissioners, a unanimous 'yes' is expected. While Precinct 2 Commissioner Paul Elizondo described the deal with Maruchan as a "dilemma" to the San Antonio Express-News, he added "a job is a job. We need as many of them as we can get."

When the think tank Progressive States Network graded all 50 states on worker protections recently, Texas got an F-minus. "There are zero record-keeping requirements in place [in Texas]," said report co-author Cristina Francisco-McGuire. "The state also has zero anti-retaliation provisions in place." Given that extra vulnerability, county and city leaders should think extra hard on what sort of jobs they want to encourage.

LGBT discrimination and SA city codes

Worried that the city's non-discrimination provisions don't fully protect gay, lesbian, and transgender residents, a coalition of LGBT community activists joined forces last summer to get five words added to five different sections of city code. By inserting "sexual orientation and gender identity" to the sections covering non-discrimination, public accommodations, fair housing, city contracts, and the appointment of board and commission members, San Antonio would catch up to other major Texas metros, all of which have already added similar language, said Richard Farias with Equality Texas.

"Really, where we're at now is we're the last major city in Texas that doesn't have any kind of LGBT protective language in its ordinances," Farias said. Austin and Fort Worth have some of the state's most progressive and inclusive ordinances. "San Antonio has nothing."

Downtown councilman and one-time civil rights attorney Diego Bernal talked openly about the need to change that when running for office last year, gaining support from much of San Antonio's gay community. Farias said the coalition that came to be called the Community Alliance for a United San Antonio — made up of the local Human Rights Council, Equality Texas, Stonewall Democrats, the LGBT-inclusive Metropolitan Community Church, and others — has always eyed him as the council member to carry the ordinance changes through City Hall.

But just about a month and a half after the group started meeting last summer, SA City Manger Sheryl Sculley diverted the group's focus by granting gay city employees domestic partner benefits with the release of her proposed city budget. The group switched focus, moving instead to drum up loud support for Sculley. "We had to divert our attention, jump onto something that already had traction."

By November Farias and others were back on track, meeting with Mayor Julián Castro and Bernal to discuss the prospect of strengthening SA's non-discrimination policies. "We basically wanted to make sure they were on board with us to try to gather support in the community," he said. "They were."

City Hall insiders say it could be a tough sell. Some worry the language covering non-discrimination in awarding city contracts could get the hardest push-back from business and development groups, who might view it as an unnecessary burden. Others wondered whether the votes are there. However, a number incidents over the past four years illustrate the need.

In early 2009, a Bexar County Sheriff's deputy on duty at the Rolling Oaks Mall arrested two 22-year-old women for trespassing. The reason? He didn't want them kissing in the mall.

In 2008, Taco Cabana backed out of catering a Gay Chamber meeting when it learned that it was an LGBT gathering, QSanAntonio reported. In 2010, Plaza de Armas broke news that the San Antonio Police Officers Association lobbied council members in an attempt to derail or delay the appointment of Ruby Krebs, a tough transgender-rights activist who had pushed for changes in the department. Last summer, the Northside's Wild West country bar kicked out two gay men for trying to dance with each other. "It's not abstract. We think these policies are really needed," Farias said.

The group hopes to see council take up the issue before the end of 2012. Likely? Bernal still supports the idea but hasn't yet determined how or when to push the policy forward. Castro's office did not respond to calls for comment.

Bernal driving out the moneychangers

Bernal doesn't pull punches explaining his thoughts on payday lenders. In a room teeming with lobbyists and supporters of the payday and title loan industry at council's governance committee meeting Wednesday he chided the industry's "just barely, not quite criminal practices."

Bernal's endured a steady stream of lobbying from the payday and auto title lending industry since officially announcing his plan to draft a city ordinance cracking down on the practice. In absence of any real state regulation, Bernal wants a local ordinance capping payday loans at 20 percent of a borrower's gross monthly income. He suggests limiting title loans to either 3 percent of a borrower's gross annual income or 70 percent of the vehicle value, whichever's less.

The council committee told city legal staff to draw up an ordinance and bring it back in August for consideration. That ordinance will almost certainly look like similar ordinances passed in other Texas cities — measures that have already provoked lawsuits from the payday lending industry.

At council's governance committee meeting, Bernal said he's reviewed over 100 loan contracts since starting his effort, and that none fell below a 230 percent interest rate. "I have one here that's 616 percent," he said.

After the meeting, Tim Von Kennell, executive director of the industry group Consumer Service Alliance of Texas, or CSAT, said his organization doesn't think cities in Texas "have the authority to regulate the industry. Our preference is statewide legislation." CSAT has already sued both Dallas and Austin after those cities passed similar measures tightening payday lending practices.

There's a reason Bernal's left to pass regulation at the city level. Payday cash rained down on the Texas capital last time legislators attempted to pass reforms that would have regulated the industry. Payday lenders spent at least $3.9 million (and possibly even as much as $8.4 million) lobbying Texas lawmakers before the last legislative session. In the two-year 2010 election cycle, the industry dished out nearly $1.4 million to Texas politicos, 76 percent of it to GOP members and 24 percent to Democrats. And guess who topped TPJ's list of politicians with the "biggest predatory paydays"? The big four: Speaker of the House Joe Straus ($142,632), Gov. Rick Perry ($121,460), Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ($109,000), and Attorney General Greg Abbott ($52,500). •

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