Living Wage

Living Wage (a failed proposal) – the Living Wage movement is a nationwide attempt to establish a minimum wage that matches the cost of living in a given geographical locale  (http://www.universallivingwage.org ). When I first encountered this program I felt strongly in their guiding principle  – workers should be paid a minimum wage commensurate with what it costs to live in a specific geographical area of the country.

I saw a reflection of this problem in our University community. Many of the men playing in the basketball league held multiple jobs. Their main employment with us was not enough to pay the bills at home and so most held second and third jobs. A common theme was that they and their wife worked multiple jobs to make ends meet – and the kids? Well, they had to get by with little or no supervision and a default education on the streets of Newark. This seemed to me at the core of many of the problems of the people living in Newark. There was also a second social theme that stated a simple principle – no one who works full time should live in poverty. It’s hard to argue with this concept no matter where you are on the political spectrum. A third component of this approach to wages at the University was what I came to call ‘The Ben and Jerry” philosophy – that no one in an organization should make more than 20 (or 30) times the lowest wage earner.

In the late ‘90s, I decided that perhaps the University could merge these viewpoints into a wage principle for our University – we could be the first University in the nation to raise the income level of our lowest paid employees to at least a living wage, but go even further by tying it to the overall wage scale of all our employees.

I thought that as a member of the administration (I had recently accepted the position of associate dean in the graduate school), I would have a stronger voice than that of a simple faculty member and perhaps convince the university to adopt a salary structure that would help some of our lower income employees earn more so that they would not have to take multiple jobs and consequently would be able to devote more time to their families. I saw the University as potentially a pioneer in this area – the first academic institution to adopt a salary structure that considered the lowest wage earners and didn’t keep rewarding the upper level employees with the delusional, self-serving rationale that “the only way we’re going to attract the top people is to pay top salary…” – I envisioned a university that attracted the kinds of professionals who realized they could be scientists, clinicians and administrators and accomplish their professional goals, while earning a reasonable ( but perhaps not an exceptional) salary.

Several years later, I  requested a meeting of human resource directors, VPs and assistant VPS, to study a plan to accomplish these goals. I proposed the following plan: the lowest paid full time employee would receive what HR would determine was a Living Wage for the city of Newark and that the top earners (administrators and faculty in the highest income bracket) would receive no more than 20-30 times that lowest salary. The result of that meeting was an agreement to first look at the numbers and see if the plan was economically feasible. But we were past the era of the leadership of the visionary Stan Bergen and this meeting was the only one on the topic. The proposal had fallen on completely deaf ears. [I confess to a flaw in myself. I realize now that when I get an idea that I find compelling, and obviously beneficial, I think that everyone else will see this too. I naively failed to appreciate the work it takes to convince others of what seems obvious to me.]

The proposal never went beyond that initial meeting.

(follow-up note: I still think it’s a good idea!)

(rev. 10.12)