Jewish Community Must Join the Fight for $15 Minimum Wage

Jaq Basilis and Julie Dancis of Camp Galil and Habonim Dror calling for $15 minimum wage at rally in Rittenhouse Square.  Photo by Sophie Haeuber (April 2014).

Jaq Basilis and Julie Dancis of Camp Galil and Habonim Dror calling for $15 minimum wage at rally in Rittenhouse Square. Photo by Sophie Haeuber (April 2014).

— by Stuart Applebaum

Jewish law and tradition are clear about our duty to fight for the basic rights of all working people.

Shantel Walker makes $9 per hour at the Papa John’s restaurant in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood where she’s worked for the for the last 15 years, almost half her life. Because her wages are so low, she often has to choose between eating lunch or buying a Metrocard to get to work. She shares a one-bedroom apartment with family members, but still worries about making ends meet every month.

But Ms. Walker is not staying silent and letting her challenges get her down. She is standing up and joining with other fast-food workers across the country in calling for fairness and respect on the job. Since late 2012, fast-food workers have been walking off the job as part of regular one-day strikes and their ranks have recently been supported by home health care aides, adjunct professors, airport baggage handlers and other low-wage workers. Their demand? $15 per hour and a union.

The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is nothing close to a living wage. If someone earning the minimum wage is fortunate enough to be able to work full-time hours (and many are not), they would earn only $15,080 per year, which is under the poverty line for a family of two. At the current minimum wage, workers struggle paycheck-to-paycheck, and if they are able to pay all their bills at the end of the month, they are not able to save anything for an emergency, let alone for their retirement.

Rising wages will allow millions of people across the country to lift their heads up and look towards the future with hope. But it will also benefit our economy at-large. A $15 per hour minimum wage will inject billions of dollars into local economies as many are finally able to buy new clothing for their children and other basic necessities. It will also ease state budgets, as millions who currently rely on state assistance will finally be able to afford groceries and rent.

The history of American Jewry demands that we join with workers in their struggle for justice. When many of our ancestors first came to the United States, they worked low-wage jobs in the garment sector and other industries. Their experiences of struggle and pain encouraged many to organize and form unions that then fought for and won many of the basic wage and safety standards that we now take for granted. These gains enabled our families to raise their standards of living to where they are now, but we must never forget what it took to get here.
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10 Ideas to Save the Economy

— by Brian Stewart

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich proposes solutions to some of our nation’s toughest challenges.

These 10 ideas could save our economy for the many—not just the wealthy few. We are offering common-sense solutions to the problems we face today and explaining why they are necessary and important. It’s a bold agenda—from raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, to expanding rather than cutting Social Security, to making public higher education free, to raising taxes on the wealthiest members of our society to pay for it.

He hopes to “change the national conversation and put these ideas on Congress’ agenda as well as to make sure these ideas are addressed on the campaign trail for the 2016 presidential election.”

The first video in the series, on increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, comes just hours after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in a New York Times op-ed that he would task the state’s labor commissioner with convening a panel focused on raising wages for 180,000 fast-food workers in the state. Organizers pushing for minimum wage hikes praised the move. “Fast-food workers going on strike and speaking out for $15 and union rights have sparked a global Fight for $15 movement that is leading cities, states and elected officials to raise wages,” said Flavia Cabral, a 53-year-old mother of two from the Bronx who works at McDonald’s and is a leader in the Fight for $15 movement.

People thought we had no chance to win when we first started calling for $15 here in New York City. But today $15 is the new baseline for service jobs all in all kinds of industries all over the United States. Seattle passed $15, San Francisco passed $15 and now New York City is going to be next. Elected leaders realize that helping workers win $15 an hour is a winning political issue. Helping people improve their lives and move into the middle class is and always has been a winning political issue.

The second video in the series features Reich outlining key policies that will help working families succeed economically, including universal child care, paid family leave, and ensuring equal pay for equal work.

According to MomsRising Executive Director and CEO Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner:

The sad fact is right now having a baby is a leading cause of poverty spells in the United States. Every day we hear stories from our more than one million MomsRising members about their struggles with unequal pay, lack of paid family leave and paid sick leave, and lack of access to affordable child care. These are fundamental issues that need to be addressed so our families and our economy can thrive. The fact of the matter is that our labor force is 50% women for the first time in history, but our public policies are still stuck in the Stone Ages. It’s time to catch up.

This Tuesday, Vote “Yes” for Higher Minimum Wages

Rally for a “living wage” in Philadelphia, May 8.

— by Rabbi George Stern

“Living wages” make it possible for workers to raise families and enter the middle class without relying on public funds, enhancing worker self-esteem and productivity.

Allowing businesses to pay low wages essentially subsidizes corporate profits: Corporate executives make outsized salaries, shareholders get larger dividends, and we all pay taxes to support food stamps and other crucial benefits for the underpaid workers.

Many myths surround low-wage workers, including that they are mainly teenagers seeking a little pocket money, or that they are uneducated and therefore unskilled (i.e., that the low wages are “their fault”). The speakers at a rally for a “living wage” in Pennsylvania, which I attended as the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) representative, demonstrated clearly how inaccurate these myths are.

One after another, adults raising children, some of which trying to find the funds to complete college degrees, testified to the hardships they endure as they bring home between $7.25 and $8.00 an hour, at establishments like the Philadelphia International Airport and fast food restaurants. The workers of the latter are planning strikes in Pennsylvania and across the country to highlight their plight.

More after the jump.
Last year, a study by the Economic Policy Institute found that:

  • The average age of affected workers is 35 years old;
  • 88 percent of all affected workers are at least 20 years old;
  • 35.5 percent are at least 40 years old;
  • 56 percent are women;
  • 28 percent have children;
  • 55 percent work full-time (35 hours per week or more);
  • 44 percent have at least some college experience.

On May 4, Mayor Nutter signed an Executive Order raising the wages of city subcontractors to 150% of the federal minimum wage, which would currently mean a minimum of $10.88 an hour. Next Tuesday, May 20, city voters will have a chance to codify that order into law by voting “yes” in support of ballot issue #1.

While we at JSPAN do not consider that to be a living wage, it is a good move in the right direction. We also urge support for the $10.10 minimum “living wage” for Pennsylvania, the subject of the recent rally.

PA-13 Congressional Candidates Call for Higher Minimum Wages

Two candidates for Pennsylvania’s 13th congressional district, Dr. Val Arkoosh and State Senator Daylin Leach, called for higher minimum wages at the March for Minimum Wage in Philadelphia last Friday.

Arkoosh said, “Low-wage workers are the backbone of this city, this state and this country. They need a raise so they can earn a paycheck that provides for them and for their families.”

Leach said, “The average CEO now makes 500 times more than their average worker. The economic policies give every cent to the top 1%.”

More after the jump.
Arkoosh added, “Low-wage earners need paid sick leave — because no one’s job should be jeopardized when a family member becomes sick. Moms need safe, affordable and quality child care.”

The event began with a teach-in at Rittenhouse Square where Camp Galil and Habonim Dror held an interfaith forum on minimum wage. Meanwhile, Josh Yarden spoke about the biblical and American Revolutionary roots of a “living wage,” Drew Geilebter advocated non-violent actions as a means of social change, and other groups spoke about minimum wage as a women’s issue and the economics of a $15 minimum wage.

The event’s participants marched to Independence Hall from Rittenhouse Square between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. The Jewish Labor Committee were among the event’s organizers advocating “for higher livable wages, preferably to a $15 minimum.”

Raise the Minimum Wage: Make Work Pay Once Again

— by Mark Price, Estelle Sommeiller

The top 1 percent of Pennsylvania earners took home more than half the total increase in income over the past 30 years, and saw more than 10 times as much growth in income as the bottom 99 percent, a new report from the Economic Analysis Research Network (EARN) found.

The report findings reinforce the need for a new policy direction in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. to restore broadly shared prosperity and widespread opportunity, including a much-needed increase in the minimum wage.

After the jump: Minimum wage’s real value.
The levels of inequality we are seeing in Pennsylvania and across the country provide more proof that the economy is not working for the vast majority of people and has not for decades. It is unconscionable that most American families have shared in so little of the country’s prosperity over the last several decades.

In Pennsylvania, the top 1 percent took home 51.5 percent of the total increase in Pennsylvania income between 1979 and 2011. The average income of the bottom 99 percent of Pennsylvania taxpayers grew by 12.1 percent, while the average income of the top 1 percent grew by 125.5 percent — more than 10 times as much.

This 1 percent economy is not just a national story but is evident in every state, and every region. Nevertheless, the fact that inequality in the U.S. declined for more than four decades between the 1940s and the 1970s shows that there is nothing inevitable about the extreme levels of inequality we are currently seeing.

Create a Labor Day With Meaning: Minimum Wage Matters

— by Stuart Appelbaum

It’s not that often when Labor Day and Rosh Hashana fall so close together on the calendar. This year, there’s one pressing Labor Day issue that should concern the entire Jewish community of the United States — the pitiful state of the federal minimum wage.

It’s not a secret that the federal minimum wage isn’t a living wage. At $7.25 an hour, today’s full-time minimum wage worker makes just $15,080 a year. Even with two people working minimum wage jobs, the income is hovering at the poverty level — if they are even lucky enough to have full-time jobs.

More after the jump including this year’s Presidential Labor Day Proclamation.
Moreover, the makeup of minimum wage workers has changed. James Surowiecki, writing in The New Yorker, noted that:

a recent study by the economists John Schmitt and Janelle Jones has shown [that] low-wage workers are older and better educated than ever. More important, more of them are relying on their paychecks not … to pay for Friday-night dates but, rather, to support families.

History of the federal minimum wage under the 1938 act in nominal dollars (dark purple) and adjusted for inflation (light purple). (Source: Nominal wages from the Department of Labor. Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The purchasing power of minimum wage plummeted in the 1980s, when the Federal rate did not increase from January 1981 to April 1990. Six years ago, in 2007, Congress raised the Federal minimum wage by $2.10 per hour — to $7.25 per hour — as a first step toward restoring its historical value. But for the minimum wage to have the same purchasing power it had back in 1968, it would have to be more than $10 per hour now.

Jews across the United States should remember the situation confronting so many of our ancestors as they came to this country where all they could earn were poverty wages in the garment trades and other sectors.

The challenges confronting those who earn the minimum wage today are no less daunting. They are the workers who care for our elderly parents, wash our cars, pick our produce, clean our offices, and work at fast food restaurants. The vast majority of them work multiple minimum wage jobs to support their families; they are still struggling. They are faced with terrible choices, over which bills to pay every month — rent or heat, groceries or medicine that none among us should be forced to make.

Presidential Proclamation — Labor Day, 2013

On September 5, 1882, in what is thought to be the first Labor Day event, thousands of working Americans gathered to march in a New York City parade. In the 131 years since, America has called on our workers time and again — to raise and connect our cities; to feed, heal, and educate our Nation; to forge the latest technological revolution. On Labor Day, we celebrate these enduring contributions and honor all the men and women who make up the world’s greatest workforce.

America is what it is today because workers began to organize — to demand fair pay, decent hours, safe working conditions, and the dignity of a secure retirement. Through decades upon decades of struggle, they won many of the rights and benefits we too often take for granted today, from the 40-hour work week and minimum wage to safety standards, workers’ compensation, and health insurance. These basic protections allowed the middle class to flourish. They formed the basis of the American dream and offered a better life to anyone willing to work for it.

Yet over the past decades, that promise began to erode. People were working harder for less, and good jobs became more difficult to find. My Administration remains committed to restoring the basic bargain at the heart of the American story. We are bringing good jobs back to the United States. We are expanding programs that train workers in tomorrow’s industries, and we eliminated tax breaks that benefited the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class. In the years to come, I will continue to support collective bargaining rights that strengthen the middle class and give voice to workers across our Nation. And I will keep pushing for a higher minimum wage — because in America, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.

Thanks to the grit and resilience of the American worker, we have cleared away the rubble of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Now is the time to reward that hard work. Today, as America celebrates working people everywhere, we unite behind good jobs in growing industries, and we strengthen our resolve to rebuild our economy on a stronger foundation.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim September 2, 2013, as Labor Day. I call upon all public officials and people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that honor the contributions and resilience of working Americans.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirtieth day of August, in the year of our Lord two thousand thirteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-eighth.


A comprehensive study by the Economic Policy Institute points out the benefits of raising the minimum wage:

Increasing the Federal minimum wage to $10.10 by July 1, 2015, would raise the wages of about 30 million workers, who would receive over $51 billion in additional wages over the phase-in period.

Across the phase-in period of the minimum-wage increase, GDP would increase by roughly $32.6 billion, resulting in the creation of approximately 140,000 net new jobs (and 284,000 job years) over that period.

It would not — as many conservatives claim — kill jobs. Moreover, it would be an important first step in closing the widening income gap.

So we need to raise the Federal minimum wage. Yet, much of the business sector and its allies continue to stymie even modest attempts to lift minimum wage workers out of poverty.

Why? Essentially, because they can — and that fact makes even some conservatives uneasy. Two years ago, former Smith Barney director Desmond Lachman told The New York Times:

Corporations are taking huge advantage of the slack in the labor market — they are in a very strong position and workers are in a very weak position. They are using that bargaining power to cut benefits and wages, and to shorten hours.

Of course not all the blame for low-wage workers lies with the businesses that employ them. The consuming public has a role in it as well. Too often, we fail to make the link between low prices and widespread poverty.

Some states, frustrated at the inability of Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, have raised the minimum wage locally. But this needs to be done nationally, and now.

The Torah proclaims, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20) If we are to provide a measure of justice where it counts to the least-well paid among us, we have to all do our part to support an increase in the federal minimum wage.

It’s the right and just thing to do.

We must partner with others to ensure that this happens. We need to talk about it with our friends, families and neighbors. We in the Jewish Labor Committee are proud to be part of this campaign, and we encourage you to do so as well. In the Greater Philadelphia area, a good start would be to contact Michael Hersch, the Philadelphia Regional Director of the Jewish Labor Committee, via phone at 215-587-6822 (cell: 215-668-5454), or via email at [email protected].

Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Jewish Labor Committee and president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, UFCW.


Screwing the Poor: Medicaid Expansions and the Minimum Wage

— Crossposted from Democratic Convention Watch

We know two things that would greatly help the poor are a Medicaid expansion in all states and a raising of the minimum wage. Of course, single payer would be a better thing for legitimately raising all boats, but that's another post.

When one has a low paying job, often there are no sick days. Which matters because people come to work sick, as they cannot afford to lose the income. This is bad because diseases are often shared. For non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease, there is no coverage for medical care, and it's just disastrous. Higher wages would enable the afflicted to afford co-pays and medications. Some amount of coverage would help to keep those co-pays lower. 

This doesn't even touch the point that when people are paid very low wages, the taxpayers making higher wages subsidize costs associated with those workers and their families. Multiple studies have been done which show that Walmart workers disproportionately receive SNAP funds, plus their kids often qualify for SChip. Don't get me wrong, I'm personally glad to help support people in need with my tax dollars, I just think employers should pay a living wage so that tax dollars could flow to other things, like education.

More after the jump.

In Florida, Rick Scott finally came around to supporting the Medicaid expansion. It's a good deal for all the states who take it as the expansion is funded 90% by the Feds. But at the time of this writing, the state house and senate are looking at overriding his choice. There's an interesting study from the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy. (Whole report here.) It shows how the rejection of the Medicaid expansion not only hurts workers, but also ends up costing employers of low wage workers MORE than if Medicaid was expanded.

Now let's talk about minimum wage and workers. We all know that President Obama recommended raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00. The Democrats in Congress want $10.10. What you may not know is that these raises, while a step in the right direction, leave out two groups of people, one of which is much more fragile than the overall pool of minimum wage workers.

The first group is tip-earners, mostly waiters and waitresses. Currently, their hourly wage is $2.13. While there are differences from state to state, and within certain cities, the idea of Federal legislation is that the waitpeople should make enough tips to raise their hourly wage to at least $7.25. This doesn't usually happen. First, often tips are pooled, with some portion being accorded to busboys (who do make minimum wage), sometimes the kitchen staff, and sometimes front of the house (like hosts/hostesses) and even management. Starbucks, for example, was successfully sued ($14 million) for tips going to managers. Wherever the tips go, taxes are deducted from the waitperson's intake, even if they don't get to keep it. In addition, a lot of times, waitpeople work hours before/after the restaurant is serving, to do side work. There are no tips in those hours. In a lot of places, if a customer puts the tip on a credit card slip, taxes are deducted directly before the money goes to the waitperson.

The proposed legislation would raise tip-earning minimum wage to 70% of the full minimum wage. This would help, but there needs to be more fairness in the tip system overall.

The worst-affected group, however, is that of the disabled. There are approximately 420,000 Americans with major disabilities who work for a sub-minimum wage in sheltered workplaces. The original intent, when the program was established in 1938 was a good one: pay a little money to the disabled to teach them a skill, so that they could be able to find real employment. Sadly, currently only 5% of the sheltered workshop employees end up getting out, the rest remain, being paid several cents an hour. An example of these types of employers is Goodwill, which pays 20 cents per hour. Full report here. Here's another take:

In addition to the segregation and poverty engendered by sheltered workplaces, many advocates say workers with disabilities often face exploitation. In 2009, Iowa shut down a “bunkhouse”— essentially, a shed — where 60 men with disabilities employed by the meat processor Henry Turkey Services were forced to sleep. The bunkhouse was unheated, poorly insulated and infested with cockroaches. The company deducted $10,000 a week from the paychecks of the workers housed in the bunkhouse.

Aside from the deplorable housing conditions, the 60 workers with disabilities were paid only $0.41 an hour to work alongside abled workers who were earning between $9 and $12 an hour.

41 cents an hour, times 40 hours a week times 52 weeks is an annual wage of $852.80. Before payroll taxes. In 1938 the average annual salary was $1,700, so $850 was doable. Back then, one could get a house for about $6,000 dollars and a car for well under a grand. Things have changed: wages for the disabled in sheltered workshops has not.

So what does this all mean? As we move forward with the discussions of minimum wage and the expansion of health care, we need to remember those who truly need our voices. We need to raise wages for ALL, and insure health coverage for ALL. 

You know what's next: call your reps. Tell your friends. Only public pressure will make a difference.

10 States To Increase Minimum Wage On New Year’s Day

— by Keystone Research Center

HARRISBURG, PA – The minimum wage will increase in 10 states on Jan. 1, modestly boosting the incomes of nearly 1 million low-paid workers in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

The minimum wage rates in those states will rise between 10 and 35 cents per hour, resulting in an extra $190 to $510 per year for the average directly-affected worker. Rhode Island’s minimum wage will rise as a result of a law signed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee in June; the remaining nine states will raise their minimum wages in accordance with state laws requiring automatic annual adjustments to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

More after the jump.

Pennsylvania minimum-wage workers haven’t seen a meaningful increase since 2007, during which time the buying power of the minimum wage has fallen 10%, said Dr. Stephen Herzenberg, an economist with the Keystone Research Center. A minimum wage increase that would boost consumer spending is especially needed because of Pennsylvania’s recent lagging job-growth performance. Pennsylvania also needs a minimum-wage hike because it is among the states with the fast-growing income inequality.

Herzenberg also recommended that the state’s minimum wage be set to increase automatically each year to offset the impact of inflation, as Pennsylvania legislator salaries already do.

In the 10 states with minimum wage increases already on the books, the hikes will boost consumer spending, hence GDP, by over $183 million, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute. While weak consumer demand continues to hold back business expansion, raising the minimum wage puts more money in the pockets of low-wage workers who often have no choice but to immediately spend their increased earnings on basic expenses.

We need policies that make sure workers earn wages that will at the very least support their basic needs, said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. But earning an income that meets basic needs shouldn’t depend on the state where a working family lives. We need to raise and index the federal minimum wage to help all of America’s workers.

The 10 state-level minimum wage increases scheduled for Jan. 1 will benefit a total of 995,000 low-paid workers: approximately 855,000 workers will be directly affected as the new minimum wage rates will exceed their current hourly pay, while another 140,000 workers will receive an indirect raise as pay scales are adjusted upward to reflect the new minimum wage, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Seventy-one percent of these low-wage workers are adults over the age of 20, and 69 percent work 20 hours per week or more.

As of Jan. 1, 2013, 19 states plus the District of Columbia will have minimum wage rates above the federal level of $7.25 per hour, which translates to just over $15,000 per year for a full-time minimum wage earner. Ten states also adjust their minimum wages annually to keep pace with the rising cost of living – a key policy reform known as “indexing” – to ensure that real wages for the lowest-paid workers do not fall even further behind: these states include Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Nevada has not scheduled a cost-of-living adjustment to take effect this year.

Because the federal minimum wage is not indexed to rise automatically with inflation, its real value erodes every year unless Congress approves an increase. Without further action from Congress, the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour will lose nearly 20 percent of its real value over the next 10 years and have the purchasing power of only $5.99 in today’s dollars, according to a new data brief by the National Employment Law Project. The federal minimum wage would be $10.58 today if it had kept pace with the rising cost of living since its purchasing power peaked in 1968.

Rhode Island is this year’s greatest minimum wage raiser

The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012, introduced in July by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller, would help recover much of this lost value by raising the federal minimum wage to $9.80 by 2014 and adjusting it annually to keep pace with the cost of living in subsequent years. The Fair Minimum Wage Act would also raise the minimum wage for tipped workers from its current rate of just $2.13 per hour, where it has been frozen since 1991, to $6.85 over five years. Thereafter, it would be fixed at 70 percent of the full minimum wage.

A large body of research shows that raising the minimum wage is an effective way to boost the incomes of low-paid workers without reducing employment. A groundbreaking 1994 study by David Card and Alan Krueger, current chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, found that an increase in New Jersey’s minimum wage did not reduce employment among fast-food restaurants. These findings have been confirmed by 15 years of economic research, including a 2010 study published in the Review of Economics and Statistics that analyzed data from more than 500 counties and found that minimum wage increases did not cost jobs. Another recent study published in April 2011 in the journal Industrial Relations found that even during times of high unemployment, minimum wage increases did not lead to job loss.

A recent report by the National Employment Law Project found that 66 percent of low-wage employees work for large companies, not small businesses, and that more than 70 percent of the biggest low-wage employers have fully recovered from the recession and are enjoying strong profits. An August NELP study showed that while the majority of jobs lost during the recession were in middle-wage occupations, 58 percent of those created in the post-recession recovery have been low-wage occupations. That shift towards low-wage jobs is a 30-year trend that is only accelerating, according to a recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.