Community and faith leaders stood with Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris Wednesday as he called for raising the wage floor of Shelby County Schools cafeteria workers to $15 an hour. Photo by Kirstin L. Cheers.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, backed by community and religious leaders, called on Shelby County Schools to raise the minimum pay for cafeteria workers to $15 an hour.

“The solution to poverty in our community is paying people a living wage — whether they work for a public or private employer,” said Harris Wednesday afternoon inside the Vasco A. Smith, Jr. Administration building downtown. “However, it is particularly important that public employees are put on a path to a living wage.”

Currently, about 680 cafeteria workers make $11.57 to $14.17 an hour, according to Harris. Most are part-time workers.

Phillip Coley, a part-time cafeteria worker at Ridgeway High School who was in the audience, said he makes $12.51 an hour after working three years. He hopes raising the minimum wage will help him better support his family.

“When I walked in the door, I started at $8,” Coley said. “Three months later, I got an increase to $12.21. I haven’t received another raise since.”

“When I walked in the door, I started at $8 (an hour). Three months later, I got an increase to $12.21. I haven’t received another raise since.”

Phillip Coley, a part-time cafeteria worker at Ridgeway High School

Harris said he was motivated by the recent resolution passed by the Shelby County Commission supporting a $15 minimum wage for all public sector workers in the county. While he’s committed to “turning over every stone” to find the money for this effort, he said it will be up to Shelby County Schools’ to ensure the money is used for raising wages for cafeteria workers.

“It’s a tight budget year. I can’t tell [SCS] what to do with the money, but [Supt. Joris Ray] seems supportive and willing to having that conversation.”

In a statement released Tuesday, Ray expressed his support for a living wage for all district employees.

“Last spring, our district led the way in Memphis and Shelby County to ensure our full time employees are paid a living wage of at least $15 per hour,” Ray said. “The 2019–20 budget request will include a consideration to increase financial opportunities for part-time workers as well.”

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris publicly supported raising minimum wage of Shelby County Schools cafeteria workers to $15 an hour. Photo by Kirstin L. Cheers.

The release also says Shelby County Schools is “examining ways to increase wages for part-time employees,” including cafeteria workers, campus monitors and after-school staff. The district also plans a series of “community input budget sessions,” allowing students, parents and employees a chance to ask questions and provide feedback. The schedule can be found on the district’s website.

The Memphis metropolitan area is the second-poorest large metro area in the nation. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator, a living wage for Shelby County starts at $11.06 an hour for a childless adult working full-time, $22.09 an hour for a full-time worker with two children and $25.58 an hour for an adult working full-time with two children. (See other living wage rates based on family size here.) However, the minimum wage in Tennessee is just $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum.

Standing with Harris were Gail Foster Tyree, executive director of AFSCME Local 1733; Keith Williams, executive director of Memphis and Shelby County Education Association; and the Rev. Walter Womack, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Memphis chapter, among others.

Dr. Andre Johnson, a University of Memphis professor and pastor of Gifts of Life Ministries, said more religious leaders should stand for raising the minimum wage in support of the people who fill their churches and other religious spaces.

“All major religions talk about standing with and being fair to the poor,” Johnson said. “It can only help religious leaders and their institutions do better service in the community if congregants are making a living wage.”

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 Surdna Foundation and Community Change.