Editors note: MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is kicking off Living Wage Week to reintroduce the people, companies and organizations who have made the commitment to pay a wage Memphians can actually live on. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was clear about his quest for economic justice, a message that gets perilously softened as years go by. But let’s be clear, economic issues were his focus at the end of his life: The city sanitation workers’ fight for fair pay and safe working conditions is what brought him Memphis where he was assassinated.
There’s not much to see at Lucy J’s Bakery yet. A few stacked bar stools and small tables line the walls of the 1,000-square-foot space at Crosstown Concourse.
Gesturing from one side of the room to the other, owner Tracy Burgess describes how the bakery will be divided up: a cake decorating bar, coffee station and a seating area, a selection of cakes, breads, cupcakes and croissants for sale.
The coffee will be sold on a pay-what-you-can scale, with the proceeds benefiting the Dorothy Day House, a transitional shelter for families experiencing homelessness, where Burgess works as the director of development. Nothing too out of the ordinary, except that Lucy J’s will be experimenting with doing what cities in Tennessee can’t — paying workers a living wage.
When Lucy J’s opens in November, it will operate as a non-profit, and half of its staff of six full-time employees will be current or former Dorothy Day House residents. Thanks in part to an anonymous donation, all Lucy J’s employees will be paid at least $15 an hour, and will receive health insurance through the Church Health Center.
“With less time consumed by work, it means more time with their children and families, more personal time to take care of themselves, and less work stress so as to focus on future decisions,” Burgess says. “The partnership with the Dorothy Day House means those employees have the support of the House Manager to assist them with budgeting, savings, etc. Each will work toward financial goals that are specific to their needs.”
As recently as 2013, Tennessee had the highest proportion of workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage in the country.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, a gradual raise in the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2024 would have a marked impact for American families, raising wages for the parents of 19 million children across the country, or almost one-quarter of all children in the United States.
In Memphis, a living wage for a household of one adult and one child would be $20.18, based on the MIT Living Wage calculator. A poverty wage would be $7.00 an hour, just 25 cents below the current federal minimum wage.
Tracy and her husband Josh Burgess named Lucy J’s after their children, 8-year-old Lucy and 12-year-old Jacob. Families are at the center of Burgess’ work, at both Lucy J’s and the Dorothy Day House.
When homeless families seek out a shelter, they often get split up: Many shelters only accept men or women, separating married couples, and shelters that accept mothers and their children don’t always accept teenage boys. The Dorothy Day House keeps families together, housing three families at a time in an unmarked house on Poplar Avenue.
Tracy and Josh Burgess were considering a divorce when they started volunteering at the Dorothy Day House five years ago, baking desserts for the house’s weekly community dinner. It was a difficult time in their marriage, and they’d been working too much and spending too little time together.
Baking together and sharing through the community meal at the Dorothy Day House — a place so committed to keeping families together — helped sustain their marriage. Tracy started working at the Dorothy Day House, first as an AmeriCorps VISTA member, and later as the director of development, and she and Josh started running a bakery out of their home, making specialty cakes for weddings, birthday parties, and other events.
In a way, Lucy J’s is a manifestation of these entwined passions for baking, family and work.
Burgess hopes that employees making $15 an hour will be able to work only one full-time job, instead of multiple full-time and part-time job combinations.
“We want to provide an opportunity for parents to earn what they need to provide for their families…We want quick employment that will sustain [employees’] family lives.”
It’s been eight years since the federal minimum wage was last raised, and inflation has steadily chipped away at its value. In 2016, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the $7.25 an hour minimum wage was worth 10 percent less than when it was put in place in 2009.
The value of the minimum wage was at its highest in 1968, the year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed while planning the Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial movement to demand better jobs and a higher minimum wage from the federal government.
According to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity after 1968, “it would have reached $21.72 per hour in 2012… If minimum-wage workers received only half of the productivity gains over the period, the federal minimum would be $15.34. Even if the minimum wage only grew at one-fourth the rate of productivity, in 2012 it would be set at $12.25.”
There has been some local support for the living wage movement: U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-9th), is a co-sponsor of the Pay Workers a Living Wage Act, which aims to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, and State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, (D-93rd), introduced a bill to establish a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Tennessee.
But real, sweeping change has been blocked since 2013, when Tennessee’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a law which prohibits local governments from establishing their own minimum wage that deviates from the federally mandated minimum wage. According to the National Employment Law Project, Tennessee is one of 25 states that have passed pre-emptive legislation that limits cities from raising their own local minimum wage requirements.
Because of the statewide preemptive ordinance, local lawmakers can voice support for movements like the Fight for $15, a five-year-old campaign started by fast-food workers that demands $15-an-hour pay and union rights, but they can’t do much more to affect the wage laws in their own communities.
Pre-emptive legislation like Tennessee’s reveals a hypocrisy in conservative thinking, says Dr. Susan Lambert, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and co-director of the Employment Instability, Family Well-Being, and Social Policy Scholars Network.
“On the one hand,” Lambert says, “the rhetoric from the right is to increase local control and move government off the backs of people and into the hands of local communities. And then to have these states say no, not your community — I don’t understand the logic of that.
It’s hard to tell what the impact will be of a small nonprofit like Lucy J’s paying its six employees $15 an hour. However, Lambert says, “Often businesspeople make the case for why it’s good for businesses and their community to pay a living wage. This is often how legislation happens.”
“These are the stepping stones to broader legislation to improve the quality of jobs in the U.S. Employers play an essential role in helping to serve as an example of how to balance the needs of business with the needs of employees and the community,” Lambert says.
“If businesses are not on board with legislation, they’ll undermine its passage and implementation. Employers who are willing to stand up and provide better jobs for their employees play an important role in supporting public policy to improve the quality of jobs.”
Standing in the bare-bones space surrounded by the bustle of Crosstown, it’s easy to imagine the bakery a few months from now, the smell of coffee, sugar and fresh bread luring in customers on their way to work or back home.
The staff will be grouped in service teams — one for cake decorators, one for Front of House Staff and one of Back of House Staff. These teams will provide a network of support and accountability, as well as build an environment of trust, Burgess explains. Within the teams, employees will nurture technical skills “like making a rose out of fondant,” Burgess says, as well as soft skills like showing up to work on time.
“If it proves successful, how far can we take it?” Burgess wonders. “Is this a start toward progress? Is it enough? If we can prove that this works, how many businesses can we challenge to do the same?”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.