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Affirming values of living wage

Amid the national outcry for wage increases for fast-food and other low-paid workers, a local group has launched an initiative to recognize, promote and drive business to local companies that pay employees living wages.

“It’s a brand-new program in the city, and it’s part of a national effort to increase the number of workers that are receiving living wages,” said Andy Reynolds, communications organizer of the Coalition for Economic Justice. “It’s a way to highlight, in a positive way, businesses that are doing the right thing.”

The coalition’s living wage certification program was unveiled Tuesday during a news conference at Pilgrim-St. Luke’s United Church of Christ on Richmond Avenue in Elmwood Village. It featured representatives from six businesses and nonprofit agencies that pay their employees at or above Buffalo’s living wage of $12.85 per hour, as stipulated in the city’s Living Wage Ordinance. If an employer provides health insurance, that wage requirement drops to $11.45 per hour.

“Buffalo is the fourth-poorest city in the country, and a lot of it has to do with the wages paid to employees locally,” said John Washington, a community organizer with PUSH Buffalo.

The reality that families are forced to “work three jobs” to make ends meet, he said, is a factor that leads to failing schools and violence in communities.

“All these problems break down the fact that we are living in a culture of wage slavery, and I really commend the CEJ for starting to establish a positive way to change that culture,” Washington said. He added that the fight for higher wages is part of the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who also sought wage increases for sanitation workers and others who were underpaid.

“Work should be dignified with a wage that allows you to be proud of what you do,” Washington said.

The coalition organized a protest march of 100 fast-food workers and their supporters in December as part of the national movement to increase wages to $15 per hour.

While the movement’s goals are well-intentioned, and higher wages will be a boost to the economy, “not all businesses can do it,” said Jack Mozloom, national director of media communications at National Federation of Independent Business, a trade group based in Washington, D.C. He said the bulk of his group’s members are from small businesses that operate with low profit margins. Paying higher wages would compel businesses to downsize, which would hurt employees.

“Research has found a link between higher minimum wages and higher unemployment rates; it’s simply a matter of logic,” Mozloom said.

New York State’s minimum wage climbed to $8.75 on Jan. 1 and will increase to $9 at the start of 2016.

The city’s living wage of $12.85 should be the “minimum floor,” said Liz Smith, organizer of the Western New York Worker Center at the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health, which has five employees. And for that reason, “we pay well over the living wage” she said, adding that the nonprofit is also unionized, a rarity for nonprofits but an affirmation of its dedication to its workforce.

The certification program is free and open to all businesses, including public and nonprofit groups. Employers accepted into the program will receive certificates to hang in their establishments. There are nine businesses already enrolled, and three retailers are completing the application process. By year’s end, Pilgrim-St. Luke’s United Church of Christ will be counted among those businesses. The church’s board of trustees agreed last month to starting paying employees, who already receive wages above the state’s minimum, a living wage in 2015.

“We feel clearly it’s in the best interests of our employees, and it’s also in the best interests of the church,” said the Rev. Bruce McKay, co-pastor of the church. “As a community of faith, we are committed to working for justice in our community, and this is a clear justice issue by paying people a living wage and enabling them to support themselves and their families. We are following what we see as biblical mandate to address issues of economic justice.”

Other benefits include attracting better-qualified workers who would be more loyal, thereby reducing turnover; and increasing a customer base with consumers who demand that businesses have ethical practices, including employee compensation, said Andrew Delmonte, social enterprise coordinator with the Small Business Development Center at SUNY Buffalo State.

Promotional materials will be distributed throughout the community to urge consumers to support businesses in the program.

“Real lasting prosperity doesn’t come from a fat dividend check,” Delmonte said. “It comes from producing value for all of a business’ stakeholders – its owners, its community, its suppliers and the natural environment.”