Minimum Wage address to Tuscaloosa City Council

This was given to the Mayor and City Council on February 9, 2016.

I am here before you tonight because I am confused by the city’s legislative agenda as it pertains to item 16–Minimum Wage Legislation.

It reads: Minimum wage determination should be controlled on a state or federal level rather than the local government level. Local government determinations of minimum wage could lead to unintended consequences for those who are low to moderate income, as well as have negative economic development impacts for local government. 

In order to reduce the likelihood of poverty and keep wage rates current, the City supports adjustments of the minimum wage rate where there is a cost of living adjustment that is tied to the consumer price index. 

This legislative agenda was passed on January 26th

I am confused because when Mayor Maddox and a few members of the council met with the coalition on January 27th; we were told that the city wanted to study this issue by setting up a task force with Northport and the County.  Why would the council state that to us, when there is clear indication in the city’s agenda that the city has no intention to pursue what is in the best interests of the people of Tuscaloosa?

Consider the words of the Prophet Malachi:  I will draw near to you judgment; and I will be a swift witness … against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan…” 

You serve the people of this city.  Now I am not a literalist when it comes to scriptures but I view the judgment as a metaphor of what is coming. Perhaps you are not seeing it as clearly as I do–before I became a minister I was a clinical specialist that examined behaviors.  In my opinion, the judgment comes in the way of a crisis for our citizens.

17,000 people are desperately trying to make ends meet on an hourly wage that does not cover the rent, does not cover childcare, does not put food on the table, does not give them access to preventative health care.  They are forced to seek public assistance in attempt to make ends meet; which in our culture is a shameful act.  The coalition has heard from these families and it breaks my heart, especially when there are city solutions that can be taken.

When people are in a desperate situation that boxes then into a corner they begin to choose options harmful to themselves and to the community.  They steal food.  They steal items to sell for cash.  They resort to violence.  Domestic violence occurs because they are frustrated and angry at themselves for not being able to provide for their families.  They get arrested.  Police are placed in situations where unarmed people are shot.  We have already seen this happen in Tuscaloosa.

A pastor recently said, we are one gunshot away from being another Ferguson. We have a crisis here.  The city agenda speaks of unintended consequences, consider the unintended consequences of passing the buck.  The unintended consequences of passing the buck is more people choosing behaviors that cause physical harm and possible loss of life.  These will continue if the city council refuses to do the right thing for its citizens. It is already escalating. Good people in desperate situations are choosing poor behaviors to address immediate basic needs like food and shelter.

You do have the authority given to you by the state or the state would not be seeking to prevent that authority to act on behalf of the citizens of this community.  You have been given studies that show that raising the minimum wage benefits the local economy with increased tax revenue because the working poor spend their resources locally.  That is increased revenue in  your city’s budget.  It is good for business becuse increased wages reduce staff turnover which any business owner can tell you, it is more expensive to train new staff than to keep staff.  Every single state and city that has done this has prospered.

Further, you have the backing of the US Department of Labor to act on behalf the citizens.

Not acting with your authority will result in increased suffering in this city, in your heart of hearts you know this.  I close with one more quote, this from Apostle James, the brother of Jesus: If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. 

You are committing a grievous sin against your own conscience by refusing to do what your own words declare is right.

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Sabbath Day Rest

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”  So begins the Department of Labor’s[i] website regarding the history of Labor Day.  It ends with this statement: The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”

Only a fraction of workers have Labor Day as a paid holiday.  In Tuscaloosa, over 200 establishments will be open this Labor Day.  In a 2013 survey[ii], 39% of employers nationwide will be requiring their employees to work Labor Day. The tribute offered by the nation becomes only a symbolic gesture; it is no longer a sincere offer of gratitude to the American worker.

I wonder if the life expectancy of Americans ranking 34th in the world, tied with Cuba, Columbia, Qatar, Costa Rica, and Nauru is in part because we do not honor the notion of a Sabbath.  Every nation that has surpassed our life expectancy by years—require employers to offer paid vacation and many of them also require paid holidays.  The US does not. Even Japan with its stricter work ethic than the US requires companies to offer 10 days of paid vacation leave. Their life expectancy is number one in the world at 84 years. Every single nation that excels in life expectancy over the US has a minimum of 10 days required paid leave in addition to paid holiday leave.  Most of these nations total between 25 and 35 days of paid leave a year.

Is there a correlation between paid leave and life expectancy?  I don’t know.  What has been studied is that there is a correlation between income and life expectancy.  An increase of $10K a year for someone who is in the bottom 25% of income does more to increase their life expectancy while a reduction of $10K for someone who is in the top tiers of income has little impact on their life expectancy.

According to National Employment Law Project, 60% of businesses are in favor of a $12 an hour minimum wage.  This wage would give the lowest paid wage earners in our country that $10K a year increase and have a positive impact on their health and life expectancy.

The average life expectancy in the US for males is 76 years of age.  The difference between expectancy between a male whose income is in the upper tiers of income versus the lower tiers of income is 6 years[iii].  The argument to make the poor wait for retirement benefits does not make sense when life expectancy improvement is concentrated in the wealthy.  Retirement should not be the only time we get to experience rest from our labors. My hunch is that we would enjoy more and longer retirement years if we are able to take paid leaves throughout our work lives.

The Center for Economic Policy report from 2013 found that 69% of small businesses in the US are less likely to offer paid vacation time.  Only 49% of low wage workers have paid vacation time versus 90% of high wage workers.  The ability to have time off should not be only reserved for those in high hourly wage or salaried positions. Time off is important for our general wellbeing, not only physical health but mental and spiritual health as well.

When I was executive director of a small non-profit, it was important to me that my employees had the ability to take paid time off from work—be it sick, vacation, or personal days regardless of hours worked.  It was pro-rated based on their hours worked.  The work was demanding and stressful enough to have to also worry about a sick child at home.  Every part time employee had a pro-rated equivalent of two weeks off their first year and it increased to four weeks after 5 years of employment.  Our turnover was low in part because of this ability to offer paid leave.  The philosophy I employed was that if the employer can assist in taking care of the basics for the employee then that will translate into increased productivity.  Having the ability to have time off when needed was a vital basic need.

We simply don’t do Sabbath well.  When I was growing up we had in New York State what was called the Blue Laws, there are versions of these elsewhere as well.  But when I was a child, one version of the Blue laws was that stores were closed on Sunday.  End of discussion.  It was meant to be a guaranteed day of rest.

Oliver Sacks describes his family’s Sabbath[iv]:  [The family] mingled outside the synagogue after the service — and we would usually walk to the house of my Auntie Florrie and her three children to say a Kiddush, accompanied by sweet red wine and honey cakes, just enough to stimulate our appetites for lunch. After a cold lunch at home — gefilte fish, poached salmon, beetroot jelly — Saturday afternoons … would be devoted to family visits. Uncles and aunts and cousins would visit us for tea, or we them; we all lived within walking distance of one another.

“Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” Yes, the blue laws of my childhood had its origins in the Jewish and Christian notions of the Sabbath.  But there are benefits of having a weekly Sabbath Rest and our society can’t even tolerate one day a year to be held distinct from all others for all its citizens.

Former Senator Joseph Lieberman wrote a book[v] on his practice of Sabbath as an observant Jew.  He writes:  “The benefits of the Sabbath, a Day of Rest, are many. One is just rest. As the Bible says, `Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work: but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God: in it thou shalt not do any work.’ It refreshes you physically and mentally. It gives you time.”

Dedicating a day of rest by making it different from every other day of the week is also a way to honor your own life and the lives of your loved ones.  It is a means to recognize that your life has inherent worth and dignity. It declares your life and the life of your loved ones are worthy of respect and love.  Senator Lieberman buys fresh flowers for his wife every Friday before the Sabbath, not because he is a romantic but because his observance of the Sabbath commands him to celebrate the love between him and his wife.  This simple act sets the day apart from the week.  The Sabbath, Senator Lieberman states, is meant to engage “the senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch—with beautiful settings, soaring melodies, wonderful food and wine, and lots of love. It is a time to reconnect with family and friends—and, of course, with God, the Creator of everything we have time to ‘sense’ on the Sabbath.”

However, we have made it nearly impossible for families to have a Sabbath day rest.  Our low wage earners in order to make ends meet are forced to have multiple jobs.  According to information gathered by Engage Alabama in Birmingham, the poverty level for a single mom with two kids is $19,700 yet a full time position at minimum wage only pays her $15,080.  Keep in mind, 69% of small businesses do not offer paid leave of any kind.  She misses work she loses pay.

Even if she was able to secure full time employment at $8.50 an hour, she still remains in poverty with an annual income of $17,500.  She will still need a second part time job to bring her above the poverty level and the likelihood that position will offer paid leave is even less.  Full time employees should not find themselves living in poverty. They should be able to earn enough to meet their basic needs.

If she was earning $10.10 an hour, she would be making $21,000 a year and would be able to qualify for health insurance for $50 a month through the federal marketplace. If the minimum wage of $1.60 in 1968 had kept up with inflation, the minimum wage would be $10.90 today.

Franklin D. Roosevelt when he introduced his National Industry Recovery Act[vi]  in 1933, stated:  It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By “business” I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as [those] in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level-I mean the wages of decent living.

When the minimum wage was first created nationally in 1938, it was meant to be a living wage.   But that is not how it has worked out.  Minimum wages have become stuck points in time.  In 2009, the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour was set.  To purchase something that cost $7.25 in 2009, today would cost $8.07.  It simply does not have the same purchasing power that it had.

Birmingham earlier this year passed a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour that will go into effect in January 2017.  They added to that ordinance the mandate that every year after that, minimum wage would be adjusted for inflation every January 1st.  This is the common sense thing to do and should have been included in 1968 when the $1.60 minimum wage was set.

There are over 17,500 low wage workers in the top 25 occupations in Tuscaloosa. Imagine what a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour would do for these people who are working hard yet finding themselves stuck in poverty and needing public assistance.

Our single mom would be able to come off of public assistance, spend more time with her children, and have an increased quality of life. She would have more income to buy locally the things she needs for her family.  Raising local wages would put more money into the local economy which in turns generates increased revenue for local businesses.

With the ability to meet basic needs, our low wage workers would be able to take a much desired breath.  For every dollar raise they receive means an additional $150 per month after taxes.  A worker making $8 an hour, making $10.10 an hour would earn $300 more per month.  That $300 would make a huge difference in their lives.

It would ultimately result in lifting all wages in the community. And how does that support Sabbath rest?  If a low wage earner is able to reduce the number of jobs needed to support their family because their rate of pay has increased, it would allow them to have that time with their loved ones.  It would strengthen the family unit.  It would reduce the stress they face that threatens their health and potentially extend their life expectancy.

If we could then convince employers that it is in their best interests to have healthy happy employees by offering health benefits, by offering paid leave—vacation, sick, holidays, and personal days; then we can begin to see how a Sabbath rest, a day dedicated to nurturing our souls and our families souls can transform our society.

Those of us fortunate to have paid leave, or two days off a week, consider taking one day to set it aside for family and friends only.  Choose to not do chores that day so your attention can be focused on your loved ones. Couples, make that a date night.  Families make that a family day of activities that are not chores around the house. If you are fortunate to work for one of the 61% employers that are not requiring you to work Labor Day, then use tomorrow to rest, have that BBQ outside with family and friends.  Finish your shopping chores today so you won’t be shopping tomorrow. Let the other 39% realize that it cost them more money to stay open than closing to honor this day.

Oliver Sacks closed his Sabbath reflection with these words: what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.                                                                                

Oliver Sacks died a few days after writing these words for the New York Times.  May we choose to not wait til one’s last days on this earth to ponder what is living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself but may we instead create that day to reflect, to ponder, to celebrate the life we have been given with our loved ones as part of our weekly practice. Blessed be.

[i] As found September 4 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/opinion/sunday/oliver-sacks-sabbath.html?_r=0

[ii] Lieberman, The Gift of Rest, Howard Books, 2011

[iii] http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/ODNIRAST.HTML

[iv] http://www.dol.gov/laborday/history.htm

[v] As found on September 5, 2015, http://business.time.com/2013/08/30/this-labor-day-much-of-america-will-be-laboring/

[vi]http://www.realclearmarkets.com/articles/2012/10/24/life_expectancy_income_inequality_and_entitlements_why_the_connection_matters_99949.html

$10.10 Wins

When word that Birmingham, Alabama city council had decided to establish a minimum wage of $10.10, people in Tuscaloosa began to wonder can we also establish a minimum wage of $10.10?  The answer is yes.

In a state where the poverty rate is 18.7% and nearly 2.5 times that for single parents with children at 45%, this becomes an easy fix.  35.6% of jobs in the state are low wage jobs. Montgomery, we have a crisis.  It is no wonder that the State is crying broke. Raising the minimum wage would increase the revenues in the state to provide services.

Alabama currently has no set minimum wage and so it is only those positions that are covered by the Federal minimum wage act that are required to pay the current federal wage of $7.25.  But let’s look at that figure for a moment.  In 1968, the federal minimum wage was $1.60.  If this was kept in line with inflation it would today be $10.90.  $7.25 is less than 50% where it should be.

The poverty level for a single parent with two children is $19,700.  If the parent works full time at $8.50 an hour, they only make $17,500 per year.  This means the parent needs to receive assistance from food stamps and other public assistance. No person working full time should live in poverty.

If that parent earns $10.10 an hour they make $21,000 a year and become eligible for health care insurance for $50 a month through the Federal Marketplace.  Every dollar per hour increase equates to $150 per month after taxes to an employee.  An $8 an hour employee will earn $300 more per month at $10.10.  $300 more per month can save a family from relying on pay day loans that charge extortionist interest rates.

Every one of the 29 states and 15 cities where the minimum wage has been raised have been scrutinized and studied and reveals that over 90% of those studies reveal no job loss and no increase in unemployment. In fact a 2014 study by Integrity Florida showed 25 states and 5 cities  had higher job growth than states and cities that did not raise their minimum wage. Raising local wages benefits the local economy as lower wage workers tend to spend their money locally where as corporations take profits out of the local economy to invest all over the world.

But what about Tuscaloosa?  Based on a report by National Employment Law Project (NELP) 73% of nationwide enrollments for public assistance are from working families. 89% of small businesses already pay more than the minimum wage.  60% of businesses support an increase to $12.00.  In Tuscaloosa, 17,570 people are earning less than $10.10 per hour.  The average median wage in the top 25 occupations with the largest number of employees is $8.92 per hour.

Tuscaloosa, just like Birmingham, already has the legal authority to establish a local minimum wage. Alabama has no minimum wage law and has no law prohibiting municipalities from the establishment of said laws, therefore Tuscaloosa has the legal authority under its broad police powers to establish reasonable regulations providing for the general welfare of its citizens. The experiences of other states suggest that such a regulation would survive a legal challenge.

Birmingham’s ordinance makes sense for Tuscaloosa.  It is being phased in over two years, July 2016 the minimum wage raises to $8.50 per hour, which similar to Tuscaloosa, most of Birmingham small businesses already pay wages of about that amount. In January 2017, the minimum wage would raise to $10.10 per hour.  Then every January 1, thereafter, the minimum wage would increase if there is an increase in cost of living.  It is a winning proposition!

It raises people out of poverty.  Removes people from the state welfare assistance rolls because they are able to meet their basic needs. It enables people to qualify for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. It expands local economies with the additional income being spent locally.

To pass a $10.10 minimum wage ordinance in Tuscaloosa requires a strong coalition.  On Tuesday, September 1, Move to Amend-Tuscaloosa and Work Together Alabama hosted a meeting for interested parties at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Tuscaloosa.  There will be another meeting on Wednesday, September 9, 2015 at 6 PM to 7:30 PM at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation to further this initiative.  The congregation is located at 6400 New Watermelon Road, Tuscaloosa, AL 35406.   Please join us!

(Facts in this post are from a fact sheet provided by Engage Alabama, 5184 Caldwell Mill Rd, Suite 204-191, Birmingham, AL 35244)