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.
Two years ago, CHOICES’ 10 lowest-paid workers were paid $11 an hour — $3.75 more an hour than the federal minimum wage. But for CHOICES — whose mission is to provide “comprehensive reproductive health care to everyone” and “completely transform the way reproductive health care is perceived and provided in our community” — that wasn’t enough.
Sara Jane Goodman was CHOICES’ board president when they first began discussions about raising the base pay of all their employees.
“If we were gonna talk the talk about the importance of economic justice,” Goodman said, “we realized we had to walk the walk.”
To raise the base pay of all employees, Goodman said, “We had to adjust a few other employees upward so that their longevity and greater levels of responsibility were compensated fairly in comparison.”
CHOICES’ annual payroll costs for their 35 employees increased about $60,000 following the pay raise. Despite the cost, Goodman said, “the board was unanimously supportive.”
CHOICES’ path to providing a living wage for all employees could serve as a model for other local organizations. For CHOICES’ Executive Director Rebecca Terrell, the decision was simple: “It’s just a matter of priorities,” she said, “We get to decide where we spend our money.”
“There is a market argument that higher wages means ‘better employees.’ But we already had great employees,” Terrell said, “We just think people deserve to make enough money to feed their families. You should be able to take care of your basic needs.”
For Terrell, paying workers a living wage is one part of creating a workplace that responds to the needs of both their employees and the patients they serve.
“We are trying to set an example of how a partner organization in social justice acts,” Terrell said. “We understand the multitude of issues our patients and employees are dealing with, and we are active in issues like protecting immigrants, fighting discrimination, supporting a living wage. We try to let those issues inform the work we do.”
David Ciscel, CHOICES board treasurer, explained the living wage movement in a 2010 report “What is a Living Wage in Memphis?” describing it as “an attempt to convince people that low wages are short sighted for the economy as a whole and disastrous for those who have to live on them.”
Someone making $15 per hour would earn about $30,000 in a year. A single person with no children, could live adequately on that income level, according to Ciscel, a University of Memphis emeritus economics professor, specializing in labor markets and the Mid-South economy.
But for someone with one or two children, Ciscel said, “it takes $30,000-$45,000 a year to support a family at minimum adequacy. So, we tried to move in that direction so that somebody who had a child could earn a living at CHOICES and live a minimally decent life.”
For Ciscel, it was also important that employees working a range of positions were fairly compensated.
“CHOICES also has two medical doctors, and it’s important that the people who work for those doctors also earn a decent living,” Ciscel said, “Doctors almost by definition get a more than adequate income. And the people that work with a doctor should also have a living income that allows them to not only be proud of their work but be able to support themselves.”
Ciscel said he’s heard the argument that businesses can’t afford to pay their workers a living wage, and he doesn’t buy it.
“The incremental cost of bringing somebody from say $11.50 to $15 an hour, and the number of people you do that for relative to the other employees you’ve got — it’s a cost, but it’s not a cost that overwhelms your business,” he said, “I’ll bet that’s true for other for-profit businesses. I’m not sympathetic with businesses that are trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip.”
When Olivia Jackson started volunteering at CHOICES two years ago, she was 21 and still reeling from the loss of her previous job. She had not been volunteering for very long when she was offered a full-time position working the front desk. Jackson was “sweet, persistent and determined,” Terrell said, “She just won us over.”
Jackson describes CHOICES as a nonjudgmental place: “You can be yourself here.” And her favorite part of her job is greeting patients. No matter what, she said, “I can help people have a better day.”
At her previous job, Jackson was paid just over the federal minimum wage at $8 an hour.
“I’m a grateful person no matter what,” she said. But she had begun to wonder, “How can I prosper off $8 an hour?”
Jackson was paid $12 an hour when she first started working at CHOICES, but her pay was soon raised to $15 an hour when the board decided to raise the base pay of all employees.
Being paid a living wage makes a difference, Jackson said. She is able to rent a house close to work rather than the income-based apartment she was living in while she worked at her previous job. She’s also been able to travel, she said, to Puerto Rico and Panama.
“Knowing that you have good pay, nice staff, it makes you want to go to work,” Jackson said. “I never have a day when I don’t want to come to this place. I love working here. I really do.”
How are you living?
- Check out the Living Wage Calculator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Fight for 15 uses direct action to advocate for wages families can live on.
- See how other states are fairing in the quest for a livable wage at Raise the Minimum Wage.
- Compare wages by state with this interactive graphic.
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