Workers Push for a Living Wage: Calculations Often Put Fair Pay Well above Local Minimum
Roewe, Brian, National Catholic Reporter
Just before the Labor Day holiday, fast-food workers across the U.S. planned to wall off their jobs in a daylong strike as part of a nationwide push for higher wages. News reports before the Aug. 29 strike estimated that workers in 35 cities would join the campaign, along with low-wage retail workers. Organizing leaders want pay increased to $15 per hour, what they have called a "living wage."
"These are multibillion-dollar companies, yet we're understaffed and underpaid," Shenita Simon-Toussant, who receives $8.25 per hour as a shift supervisor at a KFC in Brooklyn, N.Y., told the U.K.-based Guardian. "I have a husband in part-time work and three children, and it's impossible to survive on. We need a living wage."
The push for a living wage is nothing new. Traditionally, the term has referred to a flexible salary based on various costs--such as food, child care, health care, housing or transportation--within a specific city or region. Those factors feed into a formula that determines a market-based salary that allows a living standard above the national poverty line--currently $23,550 for a family of four--but usually still below what constitutes middle class.
The U.S. Catholic church has championed a living wage in its past. In 1906, noted labor priest Msgr. John A. Ryan published A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects. In it, he argued that "wages should be sufficiently high to enable the laborer to live in a mariner consistent with the dignity of a human being," a belief he viewed as an "industrial, religious and moral fact."
More recently, Stockton, Calif., Bishop Stephen Blaire in the U.S. bishops' 2013 Labor Day Statement called for an emphasis on creating jobs that "provide a just compensation that enables workers to live in the dignity appropriate for themselves and their families." He noted that half of all U.S. jobs pay an annual salary of less than $27,000, and that social inequality in the country is often separated by city blocks.
"The current imbalances are not inevitable, but demand boldness in promoting a just economy that reduces inequality by creating jobs that pay a living wage and share with workers some profits of the company," said Blaire, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
"Ethical and moral business leaders know that it is wrong to chase profits and success at the expense of workers' dignity. They know that they have a vocation to build the kind of solidarity that honors the worker and the least among us," he wrote.
More often than not, the living wage figure dwarfs the local minimum. One living wage calculator, created by an MIT professor as part of Penn State's Poverty in America project, provides cost estimates for a full-time worker who also is the family's sole provider. In New York City (population 8.3 million), the tool projects a living wage of $22.32--compared with the state's $7.25 minimum wage--for an individual supporting two adults and two children. That same individual would require a $16.46 living wage in Cody, Wyo., (population 9,689), where the minimum wage is $5.15.
"The [living wage] calculation is always something that is both an art and a science," said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project. She told NCR that the balance comes in determining what constitutes reasonable pay to support a comfortable life while at the same time figuring out what is politically feasible to appease workers without ostracizing local business owners.
Modern efforts to establish living wage ordinances have focused on leveraging government contracts and funds to ensure higher wages. One of the earliest efforts came in Baltimore in 1994, when the city required contractors to pay employees a rate higher than the minimum wage. Those efforts have expanded to include all of Maryland, which became the first state to mandate a living wage. …