Dr. Martin Luther King’s prescription for poverty was simple: “A living wage should be the right of all working Americans.”

In Memphis, where King was killed 50 years ago this week while fighting for that right for black sanitation workers, a living wage for a single adult with no children, working full-time, is $10.75, or $22,360 a year.

That covers only the most basic expenses, such as food, housing and transportation, with nothing left for savings or entertainment, according to economists’ calculations.

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism sent a survey to the 25 largest companies in the Memphis area about whether they pay their workers enough to make ends meet.

Half of those 25 companies, which combined employ more than 160,000 workers, didn’t respond to the questions.

A third refused to reply to the survey at all. And several others sent vague statements that dodged survey questions about health insurance, predictable schedules and the use of temporary workers.

And although Memphis is the poorest large metro area in the nation, only two of the 25 largest employers support raising the lowest wage to $15 an hour — or just over $31,000 a year — as the Fight for $15 campaign demands.

Fight for $15 strike line marches at McDonald’s on Union Avenue to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sanitation workers strike. Photo by Andrea Morales.

The MLK50 living wage survey, which used the Memphis Business Journal’s list of largest area employers, found:

• Only 8 of 25 companies/organizations were willing to say what they pay workers. The survey respondents are Shelby County Schools, City of Memphis, Shelby County Government, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Regional One Health, International Paper Co., Saint Francis Healthcare and Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.

• Eight companies ignored multiple requests, made via email, phone and social media, to complete the survey. They are The Kroger Co., DeSoto County School District, XPO Logistics Supply Chain, Technicolor, Century Management Inc., Memphis Light, Gas & Water, Nike Inc. and the University of Memphis. (MLGW sent a response the day after the survey was published April 2.)

• Five companies sent statements that failed to answer all of the survey’s questions: Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp., FedEx, Smith & Nephew, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Walmart. (Read the statements here.)

• Salary information for four public sector employers (36,225 employees combined) — the U.S. federal government, Tennessee state government, Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the military — required a lengthy public records request process, but online databases indicate all four pay some workers too little to live on.

• University of Tennessee Health Science Center is the only respondent that doesn’t outsource work and doesn’t use temporary workers.

• Only two of 25 employers support raising the lowest wage to $15 over the next five years: Shelby County Schools, which recently announced plans to pay all its workers at least $15 an hour, and University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

There’s only one conclusion to be drawn from companies that won’t say if they pay workers a living wage, said University of Memphis poverty researcher Dr. Elena Delavega.

“They have something to hide,” she said. “They want to hide how much their lowest paid workers are making.”

The good news

When you have good news, you don’t mind saying so. The City of Memphis (7,000 employees) was the first to respond to the survey. Fifteen percent of its workers earn between the living wage of $10.75 an hour and $15 an hour. Eighty-five percent of city employees make more than $15 an hour.

Shelby County Schools (11,500) pays 17 percent of workers less than $15 an hour, but announced late last month plans to raise its lowest-paid employees to $15 an hour.

Shelby County Government pays just 3 percent of workers less than $15 an hour and University of Tennessee Health Science Center pays just 9 percent of workers less than $15 an hour.

Regional One Health pays 19 percent of workers less than $15 an hour.

Saint Francis Health Care pays 12 percent of workers less than $15 an hour.

International Paper pays all of its workers more than $15 an hour.

Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare pays 81.44 percent of its employees $15 or more and 17.78 percent between $10.75 and $14.99 per hour. A spokesperson said MLH minimum wage is $10 per hour.

Memphis Light, Gas & Water reported that 98.66 percent of its 2,744 employees make $15 an hour or more, and that the remaining 1.34 percent make between $10.75 and $14.99 an hour.

Government and military

To receive the wage information from four government agencies — Tennessee state government (14,200 employees), the federal government (13,200 employees), the Naval Support Activity Mid-South’s base (6,500 employees) and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (2,325 employees) — MLK50 was instructed to fill out a public records request through the Freedom of Information Act, with no guarantee of a response before April 4.

Federal Pay.org, which uses U.S. Office of Personnel Management data, provided some clues: At the lowest levels, neither the federal government nor the military pay a livable wage.

In 2017, starting pay for an enlisted service member (E-1) is just $1,600 a month. Assuming a 40-hour work week, that comes to about $10 an hour, or less than a living wage. Commissioned officers earn at least $3,035 a month, or around $19 an hour.

A federal employee starting at the lowest level (GS-1) will earn $21,672 a year, only $10.41 an hour. A GS-15 can earn at least $134,776 a year, or nearly $65 an hour.

The State of Tennessee’s Human Resources website lists jobs with a minimum monthly salary as low as $1,270 a month, which for a full-time job, would be less than $8 an hour. Full-time corrections officers earn as little as $1,262 a month, according to Transparent Tennessee, which lists employee salaries.

The elephant in the room: FedEx

When the issue is justice, charity is sin, the saying goes. Yet the area’s largest employer — FedEx, which with 30,000 employees has more than twice as many workers as the next largest employer — seems to confuse the two.

FedEx initially declined to participate in the living wage survey and sent a statement that read in part: “We are proud of our significant support of MLK50 events in Memphis and other cities as we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Giving should never be a substitute for justice, King said. “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Labor historian Michael K. Honey, the author of Going Down Jericho Road, considered a definitive history of the 1968 sanitation strike, was more blunt: “These companies like to say that they’re sponsoring events, which is great, but why wouldn’t they give information about living wages for their workers?”

FedEx later answered parts of the survey: Starting pay for handlers is at least $13 an hour, said spokesman Jim McCluskey. Both full- and part-time workers are eligible for health insurance. McCluskey said he didn’t know how many workers made more than $15 an hour.

The company, which paid its CEO Fred Smith $15.6 million in 2017, does outsource some work and also uses some temporary workers.

Decades ago, city leaders decided to sell Memphis as “America’s Distribution Capital,” a choice that would call for thousands of low-skilled, low-wage laborers able to move materials on the city’s Rs — road, rail, runway and river.

“It’s very short-sighted to try to build your economy based on low wages, but it’s a habit in Memphis and it goes back to slavery,” Honey said.

FedEx relocated its headquarters to Memphis in 1973 and today, it’s the elephant in the room, said economist David Ciscel, former associate dean at the University of Memphis Fogelman School of Business and a senior consultant for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

“We hooked our train to logistics and while a lot of the jobs at FedEx are pretty good… most of the jobs in logistics are poorly paid, have poor benefits and even worse, tend to be on demand jobs,” said Ciscel, who is retired.

“We tread very lightly when we do interviews about FedEx,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve said a few things negative things about FedEx in The Commercial Appeal and I heard about it at the university… At one point, the then-president took me aside.”

“No one wants to make the elephant unhappy… Memphis is a town that pays attention to the big boys.”

FedEx employees in the Small Package Sort System work on the overnight operations sort at the Memphis World Hub. Photo by Andrea Morales.

What about the little guy?

Cherryl Pigues Crite has an associate degree in computer science, a bachelor’s degree in business administration, is certified in computer tech, and has 20 years of professional experience. She makes $15.54 an hour as a public employee.

Cheryl Pigues Crite. Photo by Micaela Watts.

“With my salary, I bring home $961 every two weeks,” said Crite, who works for local government. “My rent is $700. My utility (bill) floats somewhere between $125 to $175. That’s one check that’s gone…. There is little disposable income left, and I’m only a one-person household.”

Crite, who was 13 when King was killed, remembers her parents’ struggle to make ends meet. Her mother made $1.60 an hour and her father worked two or sometimes three jobs, earning just $1.25 per hour.

“If the Rev. King came back today, what would he think?” Crite wondered.

The 2017 Poverty Fact Sheet, prepared by Delavega for the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at University of Memphis, found a 32.3 percent poverty rate in the City of Memphis for black residents, a 2 percent increase from 2015. At the same time, the poverty rate for whites in the city increased slightly, to 13.3 percent.

And the Federal Reserve reports that in 2016, median wealth — the line at which half of families are above and half below — was $17,600 nationally for black families, but $171,000 for white families.

“He came in the late ’60s to help us fight for economic equality and here we are 50 years later and nothing has changed,” Crite said.

“Our community is in survival mode, and I don’t think he would be pleased with what he sees. I’m wondering what’s gonna happen 50 years from now.”

Reporters Cindy Sutter and J. Dylan Sandifer contributed to this report.

Editor’s note:

After this story was published, the City of Memphis, Shelby County Schools and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee all announced that they would raise the wages of their lowest-paid workers to $15 an hour.

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. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.