Tired of watching workers struggle to make ends meet, local living wage advocates strive to make decent pay required by law.
Thursday, June 7, 2001
Righteous Wage: Monterey County Interfaith Council members Mark Weller (front), Brian Gifford, Rev. Beth Miller (center) and Alice Ann Glen want to join scores of major U.S. cities in bringing a living wage to local employees.
Brian Gifford speaks with quiet determination as he contemplates the standard of living in Monterey County. As development director for the Homeless Coalition of Monterey County, Gifford has seen just how bad it can get for the working poor, especially for those in the service sector.
The newsletters that Gifford hands out for the Homeless Coalition are peppered with disturbing statistics: almost 3,000 Monterey County residents are homeless each night, and 50,000 more are at risk of becoming homeless because they can''t earn enough to afford housing and basic needs. Gifford points out that if the moral injustice of the situation isn''t enough to make people care, then they should think of the economic reasons.
"There is work of all kinds that needs to be done here in the county: teachers, police, landscapers, restaurant employees," Gifford says. "People who do this work aren''t wealthy, and if that work is going to be done, the income and living costs must be matched."
According to the National Association of Home Builders, Monterey County is the third-least affordable metro area in the U.S. With soup kitchens and homeless shelters overflowing, the lucky few with homes of their own and money to spare may be tempted to advise others to "just get a job" or tell those who have jobs, "work a little harder." But while the bootstraps mentality may have worked in Horatio Alger''s day, it''s nearly impossible now for those earning lower wages in Monterey County to better their situations.
The Monterey County General Plan Jobs and Housing report notes that only 10 percent of workers in tourism and agriculture, the two industries that dominate Monterey''s labor market, earn enough to be considered economically self-sufficient. The cost of living has so outstripped wages in this area that an estimated 54,000 residents go without a basic need like food or shelter every month. With these numbers in mind, and inspired by recent success in Santa Cruz, the Monterey County Interfaith Council has launched a living wage campaign.
What this group of local church leaders, laypeople and labor activists wants to see is prosperity distributed more equitably. The nation''s first living wage ordinance passed in Baltimore in 1994 with the purpose of raising wages for people whose employers held contracts with the county. Since then, the living wage movement has steadily gained momentum, resulting in ordinances in at least 65 cites in the U.S., including Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose and Santa Cruz. The idea behind a living wage is simple: workers in a community should be able to earn enough to live above the poverty line.
By and large, a living wage is not to be confused with a locally raised minimum wage. In almost every case, the living wage applies only to city or county contractors. The idea is that jurisdictions with living wage ordinances on the books have made a choice to do business with companies that pay their employees enough to live on. Under most living wage ordinances, certain exceptions apply--for example, small businesses are frequently exempt.
That''s the typical scenario. Two weeks ago, the Santa Monica City Council approved a minimum wage ordinance that will increase hourly pay to $10.50 for employees at private businesses whose revenue exceeds $5 million annually. It''s the first time a municipality has ever tried to dictate a minimum wage to private industry, and it''s extremely controversial. Opponents are vowing to take it to court.
The local Interfaith Council, with Gifford as acting president, is angling for a more traditional living wage ordinance for the county. If Monterey County passes such an ordinance, a few thousand workers whose employers contract with the county will see their wages increase.
The Interfaith Council is in the process of compiling data to figure out what wage to suggest, who the living wage will impact, and how to implement it successfully. Gifford estimates another year and half until an ordinance, if passed, goes into effect. Currently the Interfaith Council is modeling its suggested living wage on the 2000 Self-Sufficiency Standard for Monterey County.
That standard, released by the Berkeley-based group Wider Opportunities for Women, has become known in social justice circles for figuring out minimum income amounts that take into consideration real rent prices, real child care fees, the actual costs of food and utilities, and other indicators that are frequently fudged or minimized in state and federal formulas. According to Wider Opportunities'' model, a single working parent of one preschool age child needs to earn approximately $31,000 a year just to survive in Salinas. That just covers the basics: rent, clothes, food, child care, transportation and health care. That works out to about $14.82 an hour.
At least one county supervisor has expressed support for the idea. Says Edith Johnsen of the 4th District, "I''m very supportive of the living wage for Monterey County--I''m just waiting to hear from the Interfaith Council when they finish their research. They have been collecting their data sets and are making their determination very carefully. When it passes, it will be a major step."
Santa Cruz is a prime resource to draw on for living wage data. Last fall the city implemented an unprecedented living wage for its contractor employees of $12 an hour, $11 if the job comes with benefits. Sandy Brown, coordinator of the Living Wage Coalition of the Community Action Board in Santa Cruz, helped drive the successful effort. Brown found herself fed up with the lack of permanent help she could give while working in social services processing emergency requests for low-income families.
"We gave out Band-Aids to get people through the next month," she recalls, "but I kept thinking, ''if people had the ability to be self-sufficient this wouldn''t be necessary.'' The living wage is a very good way to look at the root cause."
Critics worry that the living wage will hurt business, but studies indicate just the opposite. Luther Jackson, who was until recently president of the Monterey County Interfaith Council, was instrumental in the successful passage of a living wage in San Jose in 1998. He dismisses predictions of gloom and doom.
"We certainly don''t see this as anti-business, when people making minimum wage and who can barely afford housing certainly don''t have discretionary income to shop at malls and other businesses," he points out. "Historically, we saw at the turn of the century that people had no money to shop in stores, and when unionization occurred people were able to spend money, and the department store was born." Jackson cites a Los Angeles airport contractor''s enthusiasm of the living wage impact on job retention. "He said it was great for them; it cut training costs because of the staff stability."
Brown sees Santa Cruz''s living wage implementation going fairly smoothly. "We''ve had very little feedback from businesses," she says, "but the city reports no difficulty with compliance and no increased contract costs. What we thought would happen is happening, anecdotally: Contract costs generally don''t increase, and generally contractors don''t stop doing business with the city to avoid paying the additional wage rate. They work it out through the competitive bidding process."
Perhaps the most effective arguments for a living wage are the social and economic dangers of not paying workers enough. Working Partnerships, a San Jose nonprofit that''s affiliated with the South Bay Labor Council, published a white paper titled "A Living Wage for Santa Cruz and Watsonville." In the foreword, Working Partnerships Executive Director Amy Dean and Nora Hochman of the Santa Cruz Living Wage Coalition explain that the ramifications for not paying workers enough extend far past an individual family to become society''s problem.
"If parents must hold down two or three jobs, their ability to supervise and support their children is drastically reduced," Dean and Hochman write. "Without health insurance on the job, families must depend on public facilities, thereby stressing overburdened local government budgets." They also warn that "to the extent that poverty is linked to crime, neighborhood blight, educational failure and other social problems, the community as a whole benefits when working families are better able to make ends meet and lead a decent life."
For Gifford, this is absolutely a matter of justice. "We believe it is important to take a moral approach to life, even if people are willing to live under sub-standard conditions because they don''t have much choice," he says. "People who work a full day should be able to live a decent life."
For more info about the living wage, call 333-9016.
theWeeklyTally3.3 Number of law enforcement officers per 1,000 residents in Carmel in 1999. The two cities with the lowest cop-to-citizen ratio were Salinas (1.2) and Soledad (.6).
--Source: Source: Department of Justice