Santa Fe was one of the first cities in the nation to implement a living wage ordinance when it took that step in 2003. More than a decade later, the city’s minimum wage stands as one of the highest rates in the nation, $10.66 per hour.
Don't brag about those facts to Steve Eddy Jr.
A Santa Fe artist, Eddy scored a job as the gallery director of Tartaglia Fine Art last spring. Unaware of the ordinance, Eddy agreed to be paid a 15 percent commission plus reimbursements for expenses to work from 11 am to 6 pm Tuesdays through Sundays, according to details he relayed to the city.
Eddy resigned on July 12 after a "work-related injury." The gallery closed. Four days later, he filed a complaint with the city alleging Tartaglia owed him for "at least 900 hours for which I have not been compensated," $500 in reimbursements plus a sales commission of $391.50.
Per the ordinance, employers can count tips and commissions toward an employee's base wage, so long as the employee "customarily" receives more than $100 in tips or commissions per month.
At the time of his hiring, Eddy says he didn't know that all businesses required to register with City Hall are also required to pay part-time and full-time employees at least $10.66 per hour.
"I didn't even know this ordinance existed until I took my own initiative to see how the wage laws work in Santa Fe," he says in an interview.
An SFR review of complaints over Santa Fe's living wage in 2014 shows that alleged violations of the ordinance spiked this last year. Six people filed a complaint for living wage violations with the city, according to records. Compare that number to the 10-year period ending in October 2013 after the ordinance passed, and the score looks odd.
Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos un Pueblo Unido, credits the nonprofit's project, the United Workers Center of New Mexico, for the increase in complaints. She says the organization helped at least three workers file complaints against city businesses.
The group's members also testified in support of a resolution passed unanimously by City Council on Dec. 10 that requires businesses renewing their registrations to attest on the record that they will pay employees minimum wage. District 2 Councilor Joseph Maestas introduced the measure, calling it a "comprehensive, more proactive enforcement measure."
That's the direction Diaz hopes the city takes as it studies its enforcement—which hasn't shown many teeth to date.
And she says that the six complaints filed against businesses do not accurately reflect wage theft in Santa Fe.
"A lot of workers who come to the United Workers Center of New Mexico, which is a project of Somos un Pueblo Unido, are afraid," she says. "There's many ways that employers can retaliate against their workers."
Diaz also suggested the city take a proactive approach and randomly audit businesses instead of just reacting to complaints filed.
And in fact, while the city can take businesses to court if they remain in violation of the ordinance, that rarely happens. According to Zach Shandler, the assistant city attorney who reviews living wage complaints, the city has worked on about 10 to 12 "living wage matters that have been resolved through letters and correspondence, but we have only filed one civil court complaint in the past five years, which settled favorably before any hearing."
Eddy, who owns two Santa Fe homes and splits time between Santa Fe and Catalina Island off the California coast with his partner, isn't the normal face of those living wage complaints. The remaining five complainants bear Hispanic surnames and titles like dishwasher, cook, painter, decorator and mesera, Spanish for "waitress."
But his story bears resemblance to the five others in one salient way: None of the employees have been paid the money they allege to be owed, which totals at least $20,000 in wages.
Almost two weeks after Eddy filed the complaint, Shandler, the assistant city attorney, fired off a letter to Danna Tartaglia, the gallery owner, asking for a written response to the allegations with any supporting evidence in 15 calendar days.
Sixteen days later, Tartaglia, saying she had received the letter late, insisted Eddy was "not an employee of the art gallery" but rather a "friend and [business] partner who agreed on his part in the business," someone who "urged, begged and pressured" her for two years "to open an art gallery on Canyon Road in Santa Fe."
She alleges he spoke with merchants and researched locations for over a year, services "not requested, required or wanted" by Tartaglia, who hasn't returned a request for comment. She writes that Eddy convinced her to open a gallery "and an unwritten partnership between friends was begun." The gallery opened on April 14, only to close with Eddy's resignation on July 12, she adds.
Tartaglia thus contends Eddy was a "partner, not an employee." She even indicates that he knew about the living wage ordinance. "He was, indeed, aware, and in fact, instructed and warned Danna Tartaglia against hiring any employees because of this ordinance, because an employee could take advantage of an employer by filing a complaint stating they worked more hours than they actually had worked."
But that doesn't matter, according to the city. After more back and forth, the city found in Eddy's favor, and after offering a settlement that Eddy denied, Tartaglia requested a hearing on the matter.
The hearing hasn't been held. The other complaints also remain unresolved.
"From my perspective, that ordinance doesn't exist at this point," Eddy says. "It's very disappointing that I worked for someone who didn't pay me."