April 7, 2003

Panel outlines benefits of 'living wage'

By Eric Rangus

The members of a Center for Ethics-sponsored “Living Wage” panel—an Agnes Scott professor, a Los Angeles entrepreneur and an Atlanta-based activist—didn’t really debate the idea or the necessity of a living wage. That was a given.

Instead the panelists, who met in Woodruff Library’s Jones Room on Tuesday, April 1, discussed the definition of a living wage, told stories of the often difficult effort to make it a reality, and gave hints to more than 100 attendees about what they can do to help. The ethics center and the Emory Coalition for a Living Wage cosponsored the event.

Cindia Cameron, national organizing director of 9to5: National Association of Working Women and co-founder of the Atlanta Living Wage Coalition, began the program by defining “living wage.” She said it is calculation of the money necessary to a person’s minimum needs for food, transportation, housing, child care, health care and miscellaneous bills.

Calculations are done locally, and they take into account a variety of factors, such as whether a person has dependents and whether their job offers health benefits. Generally a living wage, Cameron said, is about 130 percent of the poverty level for a family of three.

“People who work full time should be able to support a family above poverty level,” Cameron said. “And that work should be dignified.”

Tina Pippin, associate professor of religious studies at Agnes Scott College, spoke of the effort to raise wages for employees at her institution. “It’s important to engage people who are anti-living wage,” she said. “When we tell them that we, as a college, pay people a poverty wage, that stops them in their tracks.”

The importance of gathering information was a point hammered home by the third panelist, Pierre Ferrari, founder of the SweatX Apparel company, a member of the Ben and Jerry’s board of directors and holder of an MBA from Harvard Business School.

“If you don’t have a handle of the news, you will get smoked,” he said. Ferrari explained that his company pays its lowest-wage workers $12 an hour ($5 an hour above the average) at a cost of $500,000 a year. He added, though, that the extra expense was worth it. In his comments he gave strategic hints to activists fighting for a living wage.

“You have to turn to a revenue paradigm,” he said. “Satisfied employees will do more for a business than any entrepreneur. Dignified payment ensures loyalty and success.” Poor production, high training costs and high turnover are the results of low wages, Ferrari said.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, a supporter of the effort to provide a living wage to workers employed by the city as well as those who are employed by companies providing contract and subcontract work for the city, had been scheduled to sit on the panel but was unable to attend.

On March 3, members of the Atlanta city council introduced a living wage ordinance, backed by Franklin, that would require the city and every firm that does business with the city to pay employees at least $10.50 an hour with benefits or $12 without. Those were the numbers calculated to be a living wage in Atlanta, Cameron said. The ordinance is being debated.

On campus, the Faculty Council and University Senate have discussed the idea of a living wage at Emory, but as yet no action has been taken. Accord-ing to statistics, Emory has about 200 employees who are paid at the University’s lowest wage rate: $8.50 an hour.