Downtown Ithaca on Aug. 19, 2017. Three quarters of Black workers in Tompkins County make less than a living wage.

Cameron Pollack / Sun File Photo

Downtown Ithaca on Aug. 19, 2017. Three quarters of Black workers in Tompkins County make less than a living wage.

July 15, 2020

Majority of Black Workers in Tompkins County Do Not Make a Living Wage, Study Finds

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Nearly three-fourths of Black workers in Tompkins County make less than the living wage, according to new research by Cornell-ILR Buffalo and Ithaca Co-Labs in collaboration with the Tompkins County Workers Center.

Out of the 971 Black workers over the age of 18 who live in Tompkins County, only 252 make a living wage to support one adult working a full time job. The data came from the 2014 to 2018 American Community Survey of Tompkins County.

The living wage includes all of the basic expenses incurred by a single, self-supporting adult. In Tompkins County, it is $15.37 per hour without employer healthcare or $14.28 per hour with employer healthcare, according to Russell Weaver, Director of Research, Cornell-ILR Buffalo Co-Lab.

The minimum wage in Tompkins County is currently $11.80.

“I would have thought that there would be a disparity, but I didn’t expect that it would be this much,” said Pete Meyers, coordinator of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, an organization involved in the study.

Racial disparities in wages from 2014 to 2018 demonstrated the unequal footing on which white and Black Tompkins County residents entered the pandemic — only a quarter of white workers in Tompkins County earn less than a living wage, according to Weaver.

Pay disparities may be worse than they first appear due the outsized negative impact of incarceration that keeps many Black people out of the working population, according to Ian Greer, director of the Ithaca Co-lab.

“[Incarcerated people] are not only kept out of the labor market when they are incarcerated, they also have a very hard time accessing the labor market after they have a criminal record,” Greer said.

Looking at such a wide disparity, Prof. Russell Rickford, history, blamed institutionalized bias.

“I think this is a case of structural racism,” Rickford wrote in an email to The Sun. “African Americans, marginalized in most categories, become overrepresented in the most vulnerable categories of work, including wages.”

Follow up research will investigate the causes of the racial wage disparity, examining which occupations are paying sub-living wages, according to Weaver.

“We want to know what those jobs are, and what processes are pushing folks into different opportunities and excluding people from higher paying opportunities,” Weaver said. “Those are the answers we need to talk to policymakers, business owners, and other community stakeholders so we can find solutions.”

“Our research does not address the pandemic, specifically, but does shed light on [how] the pandemic has created such hardship,” Weaver added. “As the pandemic hits and creates financial strain for everyone, low wages become even more impossible to live on.”

This pay disparity research will play a role in the Tompkins County Workers’ Center campaign  that aims to raise the minimum wage in the county. The working group, called Living Wage in Tompkins County, includes government, non-profit and business leaders, and is working to implement a wage of $15.37 an hour, its website reads.

One of the workers’ center’s ongoing projects, in addition to pushing for legislation, is certifying employers as living wage employers. It has certified 127 employers so far, including the City of Ithaca, Buffalo Street Books and the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes.

The Ithaca Co-lab’s new research found that raising a minimum wage in Tompkins County is essential for attaining racial justice because low wages disproportionately impact Black workers, according to Greer.

“If we want to do something about racial injustice, we should be doing something about poverty wages, shouldn’t we?” Greer said.