From the Post-Bulletin:
by the Editorial Board
When Rochester's Interfaith Worker Justice group formed two years ago, its dozen members wanted to raise awareness of the need to pay workers a living wage.
It was a worthy goal, and it remains so today.
A living wage is defined as an wage that provides for basic necessities, including food, housing, utilities, transportation and health care, without requiring workers to seek public assistance.
Paying employees an adequate wage provides a variety of benefits for employers, such as boosting worker morale and productivity. A University of California study indicates paying a living wage decreases employee turnover by 17 percentage points, saving companies an estimated cost savings of $430 per worker per year. A London study shows 54 percent of employees felt more positive about their workplace after a living wage was introduced and staff retention increased.
Community benefits mean families don't need to turn to taxpayer-funded public assistance programs.
There's no reason to think similar results will be seen in the Midwest.
Of course, pushing for a living wage isn't without controversy. Colette Sweeney, program coordinator for the Rochester effort, said simply defining a living wage in Olmsted County as $11.50 per hour spurred disagreement. "It took us well over a year of back and forth on this," she said, noting conversations have grown since the effort became part of the In the City for Good initiative designed to raise awareness of social issues as Rochester grows.
The $11.50 pay rate was taken from a 2010 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, which helped develop a nationwide living wage calculator. Sweeney said doing that gives the group solid numbers to support its effort.
While some people consider the number low, it shows the group is willing to work with the evidence at hand as it seeks to certify businesses paying a living wage. That certification process also takes into consideration concerns cited by living-wage naysayers. In reviewing businesses for certification, Interfaith Workers Justice volunteers don't include teen employees, interns or project-based employees. Additionally, Sweeney said the review process provides flexibility for employers who provide adequate benefits and employees undergoing training.
The goal is to make sure workers in certified companies are able to provide for their needs.
The process, however, isn't lax by any measure. It expects employers to have at least half of their adult workforce employed full time, unless they prove most their employees want to be part-time workers.
With those standards in play, Sweeney said the group has only found three Rochester businesses — Trader Joe's, Aldi and Costco — to certify after visiting countless hospitality and service-oriented businesses. She said several others came close to qualifying or may eventually be certified with more detailed study.
We were surprised by the low number. Other businesses likely haven't been visited or had misleading numbers, and we expect as the living wage certification process gains speed, more businesses will step forward to either raise salaries or simply become more open.
The benefits of certification are obvious: Businesses will be able to advertise being a certified living-wage employers, they will attract more and better employees in a region already struggling with a limited workforce, and they will inspire social-justice-minded consumers to seek them out.
Being a voluntary program, we see no downside to the effort.
As Rochester grows, we live in a region that strives to be known for many things — medical care, economic prosperity, healthy lifestyles, among others. Achieving any of those goals will require a quality workforce.
A quality workforce will require wages that support it. This seems like a good first step.
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