December 1, 2013

‘Living Wage’ Campaign Gains Momentum in Tompkins County

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In a victory for workers’ rights advocates, nine more employers in Tompkins County have agreed to pay their workers a “living wage,” or the equivalent of $12.62 an hour.

A living wage is the minimum amount an employee must be paid so he or she can meet basic needs and maintain a decent standard of living, according to the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.

The living wage exceeds New York State’s minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 an hour. The center, which argues that living wages benefit not only employees but also employers, says there are now 92 employers in the area that pay living wages.

The center’s success in advocating for living wages locally is part of a nationwide movement among employees and workers’ rights advocates to raise the minimum wage. While supporters say raising minimum wages to a “living wage” standard is necessary to support workers struggling to make ends meet, opponents argue that such a move could in fact reduce the number of jobs available.

Peter Meyers, director of the center, said that despite concerns that raising wages may negatively impact the economy, the increase in wages is the best economic stimulus since the money earned will ultimately be cycled back into the economy.

“Poor working class people are the ones who are more likely to spend it locally. It seems like a stimulus to an economy to have more money in the economy. When you think about what things help stimulate economy, it seems like this is one of the best ways to do it,” Meyer said.

Meyers added that employers also benefit from the increase in wages. “The higher wages you pay, the higher employee retention rate. You don’t have to spend as much money to train them again,” he said.

However, the opposition has argued that increasing the minimum wage will cause employers to stop hiring. The consequences are dangerous given that unemployment is still high and the country is still recovering from the recession, students say.

Kyle Ezzedine ’14, chairman of the Cornell Republicans, said the move to increase the minimum wage could in fact cost many employees their jobs.

“A large portion of people who work minimum wage jobs are teenagers who don’t need to make $15 an hour at the expense of other minimum wage workers losing their jobs,” he said. “A teenager who works a minimum wage job to make some extra cash on the side but still has his or her parents to rely on does not need to make $15 an hour when they’re 17 years old.”

Ezzedine added that he believes programs such as food stamps are more effective in combating poverty than raising the minimum wage.

But Meyers said the minimum wage will affect students who need to sustain themselves in addition to paying for tuition. He also added that 75 to 80 percent of workers who receive the minimum wage are not students. “The right wing is sort of saying that these are all students. That’s just not true,” Meyers said.

Prof. Richard Mansfield, economics, said that despite extensive research on the subject, no academic consensus has been reached about the long term effects of raising wages on employment.

“My best guess is that very few jobs would be lost in the first few months or years if a living wage was imposed more broadly, since it is difficult and costly for businesses to instantaneously change how they operate to require fewer workers,” he said. “The concern is that in the long run new businesses will invest in labor-saving technology, like self-scanning stations at Wegmans, before opening up in order to avoid paying the higher wages.”

Despite some apprehension about the long-term effects of raising wages on the economy, TCWC said on its website that by agreeing to pay the living wage, businesses take advantage of the service and profit cycle.

A higher living wage guarantees a higher level of employee satisfaction which translates to better customer service, and satisfied customers will return and spread the word about the quality of service, according to TCWC’s website.

Though Meyers credited the program’s victories to both the business advantages of certification and the incentive to “do the right thing,” he also said that grassroots pressure is critical for success in living wage campaigns.

Just two years ago, the TCWC worked to ensure employees working under Sodexo — Ithaca College’s food service provider — received the living wage.

Meyers noted that advocates strategically pressured Ithaca College, which has more of a local presence as opposed to Sodexo, a company based in France.

“The political solution of getting legislators to pass something seems like a challenge without the grassroots pressure. We’re not only relying on legislative solutions, not that doesn’t play a part, but the problem with the legislative solutions is that the power, especially beyond the local level, is being bought by corporate interests,” Meyers said.

According to Meyers, the living wage movement is driven by community support, as well as driven workers who are passionate about the cause. “We can sit here and wave placards saying a Living Wage for All, but until the workers actually stand up and feel like they have a community that’s supporting them, it’s not ultimately going to change,” Meyers said.