Kathleen Harvey talks about her job at Juice Plus+ with a sense of awe. When she first started as a customer service trainer and while also supporting the health and wellness products company’s aeroponic tower garden, it seemed unbelievable, really.

“Things seemed to be too good to be true,” said Harvey, 26, of Raleigh. “I always waited for the other shoe to drop.”

But that never happened.

“Right after I started, we had a bonus to come in, and I’ve never worked for a company where you got a bonus,” Harvey said. “That was something I always saw in movies. It’s hard to explain to people how you enjoy your job when they haven’t experienced it for themselves.”

“I’ve never worked for a company where you got a bonus,” Harvey said. “That was something I always saw in movies.”

Harvey vividly recalls a time when she did not earn a sustainable wage, and the cost of living overwhelmed every aspect of her life. She previously worked as a national sales representative for a Mississippi-based residential and commercial alarm monitoring company. By the time she left, Harvey was making $15 an hour but only after pointing out two middle-aged white males in the same role were each making $60,000 a year.

According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a household with two adults and a child, where one adult works, would have to bring in $20.30 an hour to cover the cost of living in Memphis. For two adults with no children, one of them would need to earn $17.61 an hour.

Harvey was grateful for the work but felt under-appreciated as bills piled up at home. She and her husband were also supporting his twin brother and mom. She said the accounts her male co-workers brought on board didn’t have a high retention rate.

“When I first started with that company, I was making $12 an hour, and I was just an operator. That just seemed like such a small increase and a huge slap in the face,” she said of her raise to $15 an hour.

Feeling underpaid and undertrained on required sales protocols, Harvey felt stunted and wanted out: “They made me so unhappy, and not having the proper guidance made me feel terrified. I could be fired at any time.”

Six months after joining Juice Plus+ in 2015 as a part-time customer service agent, Harvey was promoted to a full-time business support agent earning a living wage. She noticed an immediate difference with her new employer, who offered consistent job coaching based on a company mantra, “If you do well, we all do well.”

Over time, the added income helped her family move into a larger home in Raleigh and closer to her mother, a much-needed support system with a new baby on the way. Plus, she’ll get 12 weeks paid leave, a rarity in the United States where that’s the exception not the rule.

“We never would’ve even dared to think about kids prior to 2015,” Harvey said. “My husband has actually been offered an opportunity for advancement at his current job, which is exciting.”

Living wage gives hope

Since 1993, the Collierville, Tennessee-based Juice Plus+ has grown into a multimillion-dollar corporation, employing up to 275 employees and contractors. Jay Martin, founder and chairman, set the base pay at $15 an hour in 2016, and gave employees stock options and ownership through profit sharing.

“The bigger issue is that employees can’t make a living. Hope is off,” Martin said. “That is the biggest problem is in this country … that people lose hope about not working much higher than a minimum wage.”

“That is the biggest problem is in this country … that people lose hope about not working much higher than a minimum wage.”  

Jay Martin, Juice Plus+ founder

Core values that include longevity, authenticity and community are at the heart of the company’s decision to partner with programs like the Juice Plus+ Boys and Girls Club Technical Training Center in South Memphis. There, you’ll find Juice Plus+ aeroponic tower gardens that help supply fresh vegetables and herbs for the company’s juice blends and concoctions.

“It’s a long time coming,” said Martin, whose board is racially diverse, though he wants to diversify beyond race. “I believe the biggest problem in this country is the divide between the haves and the not-enough.”

Michele Jawando, a vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress concurs.

“We know in this country 53 percent of Americans are non-college educated, and if they are facing mountains of debt, what does that mean for their prospects for years to come?” said Jawando, an attorney who focuses on the intersection of social justice and policy.

Jawando added: “We have to have an agenda that speaks to black and brown people. They will soon be the majority, and the reality is if we don’t do the work now when you don’t have diverse workforces and when you have caricatures, that is not inclusive.”

Aside from a minimum sustainable wage, Martin saw another barrier for Juice Plus+ employees: Transportation. Specifically, too many teens and young adults in center programs, like logistics, horticulture and culinary training, couldn’t get to jobs for which they had so diligently trained. So he partnered with My City Rides, which allows workers to lease scooters for $3 a day with an option to buy. The MIT Living Wage Calculator also factors in the cost of transportation. In Memphis, an adult with one child would spend $8,754 on transportation.

“This is something we’ve been dreaming about, and we just had to bite the bullet and make it happen,” said Martin, who said employers tend to focus on the bottom line to the exclusion of what supports workers and sustainable work habits. “I think employers will wake up, and what we are doing will rub off on them.”

Such efforts add equity and diversity into the workforce, said Jawando, who asks employers questions like: What have we done more to make inclusive societies the norm? Am I reflecting the way society looks now?

“This isn’t just about a feel-good proposition,” she said. “Even, when you add people of color to Fortune 500 boards or women of color, not only did the company’s rate of return increase, but their overall performance increased.”

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong nonprofit reporting project leading up to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. death. Our focus on covering economic justice issues in Memphis has been generously supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.