Worthy Work, Worthy Wages

How was your Labor Day holiday? Did you go out for breakfast that morning? Your server was probably a minimum wage earner, one who—as a tipped worker—makes only $4.95 an hour. Perhaps you took advantage of a holiday sale at a nearby retail store. The cashier who rang up your purchase probably makes minimum wage. Or, did you go to a local garden center and buy something new to plant in your yard? In that case, a minimum wage worker, earning $8.25 an hour, loaded the shrub or tree into your car. And, if that worker is under the age of 18, his/her wage is fifty cents less.

Most of us encounter minimum wage workers every day. We benefit from their work, and yet, they—and their work—are undervalued. They often work two or three jobs, sometimes traveling long distances to get to those jobs. They do not receive any paid time for illness or vacation. When they miss work, for any reason, they just don’t get paid that day. Minimum wage workers struggle every day to support themselves and their families adequately.

Minimum wage workers in Illinois earn incomes under or just above the Federal Poverty Level. A minimum wage worker who works a full forty-hour week for 50 weeks earns approximately $16,500 annually. This worker earns less than the $18,530 that the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) stipulates for a family of three. A family of six with two minimum wage workers, earning a combined $33,000, lives only $3,000 above the poverty level of $29,990 for a family of six. Clearly, this low-income family will slip into poverty if there’s any significant loss of work time, e.g., a serious illness.

As a nation, we value families, and we value work. We hold dear the notion that people in the U.S. can succeed if they work. Their jobs make it possible for them to take care of their families, guide their children, and contribute to their communities. This vision of a stable, productive—and adequately compensated—work force falls short when it comes to workers who earn the minimum wage. These low-wage earners do not make enough to cover their basic needs, much less afford the extras many of us feel are essential for the good life.

As people of faith, we value all human life, and we believe in the dignity and integrity of all people. Stories about work fill our holy scriptures, beginning with creation itself. God speaks to us through psalm, prophet, and parable, and Christ calls us into relationship with one another and sets forth justice and compassion as integral aspects of our community life. PCG articulates our understanding of God’s claim and Christ’s call in our vision of a beloved community in which all flourish and all contribute.

An increase in the minimum wage takes a step toward making this vision a reality. PCG is working actively with the Raise Illinois Coalition, as together we advocate for an increase in the minimum wage. We do this because reducing poverty is a key aspect of our commitment to economic justice. We also do this because raising the minimum wage makes good economic sense. Research shows that higher wages, even small raises, reduce employee turnover, thereby reducing recruitment and training costs for businesses. Other data demonstrate that higher wages stimulate local economies as the low-wage workers now have more to spend on housing, food, and basic necessities.

Raising the minimum wage is good for families, communities, and businesses. It’s good policy. The proposed Illinois Minimum Wage Bill (SB 1565) calls for increasing the minimum wage by 50 cents an hour plus inflation every year over four years until it reaches $10.65 an hour. Going forward, the minimum wage would then be adjusted each year for inflation.

What can you do?

On a personal level, we ask you to pay emphatic attention to the workers you encounter in your daily activities—the waitperson who takes your order at a downtown restaurant, the salesperson who rings up your store purchase, the gardener who weeds and waters your neighbor’s lawn. Thank them for their work (and leave an above-average tip when appropriate). When you have the opportunity, tell them you support an increase in the minimum wage, and let them know that they can join the campaign by going to the Raise Illinois website.

On a collective level, we want you to join this campaign to raise the minimum wage by signing a letter addressed to members of the General Assembly. Clergy and other church leaders should sign the faith letter, and church members and other community people can sign the letter for voters. Your signatures are very important, but there’s much more to be done if we are to be successful with this campaign. Please learn more about the minimum wage bill —SB 1545—and then call (or write) your Illinois senator and representative and urge them to support it. We also hope you will consider inviting us to lead an education event in your church on valuing work and the minimum wage.

Rabbi Brant Rosen from the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston raised an important question in a recent Arise Chicago Labor Day reflection, “Will we provide laborers with the dignity of livable wages and adequate benefits—or will we only see sanctity in greater and greater shareholder profits?” His answer is a call to action for all of us, “The answer, as ever, is up to us.”

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