Sarah Nolan: City can act where others won’t to increase minimum wage

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Sarah Nolan: City can act where others won’t to increase minimum wage

Las Cruces Sun-News
POSTED: 03/30/2014 01:00:00 AM MDT

There is now a national call for action on the minimum wage. We do not expect our state or the federal government to pass something substantive in the foreseeable future. Las Cruces can. Communidades en Accion y de Fe (CAFe) and its partners hope to lead.

The “minimum wage” is no longer a living wage. It was when enacted. Today’s basic objection to a minimum wage increase — “Raising the minimum wage will hurt business and reduce employment” — is the same objection used in 1933. In FDR’s response at the time he said, “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.” During continuing arguments he stated, “By living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of a decent living.”

Today, many businesses believe that minimizing wages for some employees so they are subsidized with food stamps and other assistance from the taxpayer is one part of maximizing profits. American taxpayers do not need to subsidize business profits, nor do most Americans want a two-class society. Our local and national economy relies on a strong middle class that is the center of consumer confidence and economic growth. With the erosion of wages, we’ve put the very center of our economy in jeopardy. The center belongs to our middle class and creating more opportunities for more people to enter the middle class.

There is plenty of research, not anecdotes, which show a higher minimum doesn’t hurt local economies. For example, Washington state has the highest minimum wage in the USA and has out-performed all other states in GDP increases since it was passed 15 years ago. Restaurants have expanded 21 percent. Washington’s poverty rate has also been well under the national rate since 2007 (Bloomberg News). Other states and localities are also successful. Dr. Cornell West talked recently at NMSU about a “quality wage.” NMSU economists, Drs. Erickson and Peach, support action.

We are Las Cruces. We value all Las Cruces’ workers and the small business community. We believe that amelioration of stagnate wages at the bottom of the income spectrum benefits all. Also, we now have some Las Cruces data from Census/BLS. To be honest, let’s agree that these numbers are not pretty; sad really: (1) some 18,000 workers — 18 percent of our population — earn $15,000 or less; (2) some 9,300 of these are in restaurant, retail and health services; (3) 66 percent of minimum-wage workers here are “big business out of state” employees. And, (4) Only some 15 percent of minimum-wage workers in the city are in small businesses of 10 or less.

We don’t have to ask anymore who are our minimum wage workers. Census/BLS data validated who we see working every day: (1) 53 percent of minimum wage workers are 30 years or older; (2) Hispanics are some 64 percent; (3) almost 59 percent are women; and (4) 66 percent are in the lowest paying sectors — retail, food and hospitality service, educational and health services. In combination with a Las Cruces household median income about 11 percent below the low state mean, we should be upset.

Rabbi Larry Karol, board chairman of CAFé, has said: “The Bible teaches that an employer should treat an employee with respect and provide for his or her needs. Not only the Bible — but human decency — demands that such principles be at the basis of what we do. Hard work should be rewarded with a fair and equitable wage. Treating employees well results in greater dedication and a better working environment. When an employer shows an employee that he or she cares about them, it can only be for good.”

Las Crucens can do something about our local minimum wage. CAFe is preparing a ballot initiative to raise the city’s minimum wage to a $10.10. We want $8.50/hour 30 days after enactment — just in time for the holidays — and 10.10/hr on Jan. 1, 2016. Indexing annually to inflation begins Jan. 1, 2017. Additionally, the tip wage is at 100 percent of minimum wage. This will benefit and grow our whole community.

We will circulate our initiative from May 1-June 30. Our intent is to collect sufficient verifiable signatures to place a minimum wage increase on a special election in November for a yes/no vote. We ask for support from registered Las Crucens when our volunteers come out; we need your signatures to place the initiative on the ballot. Please call 575-618-6228 you would like to help/volunteer for some phase of this effort. There are many possibilities. We appreciate you all very much. Lets get this done.

Sarah Nolan is executive director of NMCAFe, a faith-based community organization that works to help low- and moderate-income families.