Fifty years ago this week, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis while on a mission to support underpaid workers. MLK50 wanted to know if today, the area’s largest employers pay enough to live on.

Here’s how we tried to find out. (Read the survey results and the statements from companies that didn’t answer the survey.)

To craft a survey, we consulted with PolicyLink, a California-based research and action institute focused on racial and economic equity; Center for Community Change, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that works to empower low-income people; and Data for Good, a Memphis company that develops evaluation tools. We also consulted a leading human resources professional to be sure that the questions could be answered easily by HR departments. (Scroll down to see the 10 questions we asked.)

In mid-March, MLK50 sent wage and benefit surveys to the 25 largest employers in the Memphis area, as listed in the Memphis Business Journal. Collectively, those companies employ 163,025 workers.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.

The 10-question survey asks companies what percentage of their workers earn a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour; a living wage ($10.75 an hour for a single, childless adult); and $15 an hour, the goal of the Fight for $15 campaign.

In the current political climate, with business-friendly conservatives controlling the White House and the Tennessee Legislature, hope for higher wages is most likely to come from employers themselves. Earlier this year, First Horizon National Corp., parent company of First Tennessee Bank, raised the wages of its lowest-paid employees to $15 an hour. Regions Financial Corp., parent company of Regions Bank, announced in January it would boost its hourly minimum wage to $15 an hour by the end of 2018.

“We think large employers, government anchor institutions and large retailers could play a role in increasing wages,” said Angel Ross, a PolicyLink program associate.

According to the Memphis Business Journal, these are the Memphis area’s 25 largest employers, listed in order from most employees (FedEx, 30,000) to fewest (Smith & Nephew, 2,270.)

“A great example is Costco and Trader Joe’s.They are emphasizing investment in employees as a growth [strategy],” Ross added.

Here, the issue has a special resonance: Memphis, where King was killed, is in the country’s poorest large metro area. The black child poverty rate is the highest in the country, according to a 2017 report by University of Memphis professor Dr. Elena Delavega. These children will be tomorrow’s labor force and business owners, but more than half live in homes without enough money to make ends meet. In the Memphis metro area, the racial gap in median household incomes is vast: For whites, it’s $67,781; $35,539 for blacks; and $42,244 for Hispanics.

When he was killed on April 4, 1968, King was planning the Poor People’s Campaign, a massive show of civil disobedience in the nation’s capital to demand a comprehensive federal economic package to address income and wage inequality. Turns out in 1968, the minimum wage of $1.60 an hour was the peak of spending power. Measured in 2018 dollars, that’s about $11.45.

On March 31, 1968, King delivered a speech at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., calling on people of conscience to work toward easing poverty, saying: “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Here are the 10 questions we asked:

1. What is the name of your company/organization?

2. How many permanent employees, including full-time and part-time workers, does your company/organization employ in the Memphis metro area?

3. What percentage of your Memphis metro area workers are paid: (The total must add up to 100.)

Less than $7.25 an hour (for example, tipped employees)

$7.25 an hour

Between $7.26-$10.74 an hour

Between $10.75- $14.99 an hour

$15 or more an hour

4. Are employees eligible for employer-sponsored health insurance?

5. In the past year, has your company/organization used temporary workers?

6. What percentage of employees are informed of the hours they are scheduled to work at least a week in advance (also known as predictable scheduling)?

7. Do you outsource work, such as janitorial services, payroll processing, etc.?

8. In Tennessee, the minimum wage remains at the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. However more than 20 states have set a higher minimum wage; California, the District of Columbia and New York will all raise the minimum wage gradually to $15 an hour. Would your company/organization support a gradual increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next five years?

9. Would your company support raising its lowest pay rate to at least $10.75 an hour, the living wage in the Memphis metro area according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator?

10. Please explain the challenges involved in raising the lowest wage for your workers to $10.75 an hour. (Open-ended)

This story was adapted from “MLK50 surveys largest Memphis-area employers on wages,” published March 14, 2018.

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.