Navigating Toward a Living Wage for All in Tompkins County: Working Group Tackling the Barriers

by Ian Greer, Senior Researcher @ Cornell University School of Labor Relations

If you are like most people who live in Tompkins County, you struggle to keep up with the rising cost of living. New York is one of 18 states that increased the minimum wage in 2018, to $10.40 upstate. But in our area this is insufficient, since we have a higher cost of living than the rest of upstate. This is why we are considering local minimum wage legislation, following the lead of Seattle, Minneapolis, and several cities in California.[1]

Now a group has formed of local community activists, trade unionists, social service agencies, elected officials, employers, and myself as a researcher, to assess whether this is feasible. I am impressed to see such a diverse group working together to find a solution. After years of conducting academic research internationally, I’m very pleased to do research that fills a real need in the place where I live.

An initial look at the regional economic data would suggest that our area is a perfect place to introduce living wage legislation. The problem of low wages is in a way worse here than in other parts of the state. We have higher levels of income inequality than anywhere else in upstate New York[2], and this inequality is not only class-based: the low-wage workforce is disproportionately female, Hispanic, and African-American. On the other hand, we have less to worry about from a minimum wage increase, since our local economy is relatively robust. It has had a much stronger record of job creation than the rest of upstate and it is largely driven by the kinds of jobs and businesses that cannot easily move to lower-cost locations elsewhere, in particular higher education.

Nevertheless, local people have serious concerns:

  • How would nonprofit social service agencies find the money to pay for wage increases, when so many prices are set by government funders?
  • How could small businesses adapt if their current business models depend on low wages?
  • How would workers making just above the living wage respond to new hires raised up to the same wage level?
  • Would increases in worker incomes be cancelled out by employers cutting jobs and hours or by ‘benefits cliffs’ in which they are no longer eligible for Medicaid and other benefits?

The group has been meeting since January 2018, with an aim of identifying concerns and using research to discuss them intelligently. Our first goal is to get a clearer view of perceived benefits  and barriers to a living wage. We will be listening to workers and employers that represent the diversity of low-wage sectors and occupations locally.

Part of the discussion will be based on past studies on living wage legislation in other cities and counties. Local minimum wage increases are a new phenomenon, and it differs from increases in state and federal minimum wages in that it involves much quicker increases. So we are following a new stream of research.

But we will also have to design and carry out our own studies. Ithaca is not Seattle or Oakland, and we need to carry out our research accordingly. It will likely include a survey of employers and workers, visits to workplaces, and simulation techniques to identify benefits cliffs, and possibly other issues that come up as we begin the research.

We hope that you, the reader, will participate if approached by a researcher!

 

 

 

 

 

[1] See: National Employment Law Project. 2018. Raises from Coast to Coast in 2018: Workers in 18

States and 19 Cities and Counties Seeing Minimum  Wage  Increases  on  January  1, many of Them to Rates of $12 to $15 an hour. http://www.nelp.org/publication/raises-from-coast-to-coast-in-2018-minimum-wage-increases/

[1] See: Abel, J. 2016. Wage inequality in the region. Press briefing from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/media/newsevents/mediaadvisory/2016/Regional-Economy-Press-Briefing-Presentation-08182016.pdf

[1] See: National Employment Law Project. 2018. Raises from Coast to Coast in 2018: Workers in 18

States and 19 Cities and Counties Seeing Minimum  Wage  Increases  on  January  1, many of Them to Rates of $12 to $15 an hour. bit.ly/nelp2018

[2] See: Abel, J. 2016. Wage inequality in the region. Press briefing from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  bit.ly/wageinequality