Trial by the Hour: The minimum wage just went up — but the fight for a living wage is more urgent than ever

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Rose Webster-Smith, at Springfield No One Leaves. Photo by Hunter Styles
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Jeremy Johnson, left, and Frank Cincotta, at Hashbury Headshop. Photo by Hunter Styles.
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Frank Cincotta, at Hashbury Headshop. Photo by Jerrey Roberts.

When asked to count how many minimum-wage jobs he has worked, Frank Cincotta flips open a notepad, taps his pen, and takes a deep breath. “I’ve been working a lot,” he says.

It’s a long list: he has had more than 20 jobs since 2009, nearly all of which paid less than $10 an hour. Cincotta, who is 24, has staffed call centers, gas stations, and warehouses. He has delivered newspapers, worked in restaurant kitchens, gone door to door for the Census Bureau, and stood on the side of the road waving signs advertising insurance.

Only since last year, when he took a job as an environmental justice organizer at the Springfield nonprofit ARISE For Social Justice, has Cincotta been able to start saving money on top of paying his bills and rent. In October, he opened his own business: Hashbury Headshop on Wilbraham Road in Springfield.

“I consider all of those low-income jobs to be my schooling,” he says. “You have to have a thick skin to open a business, but you need to have just as thick skin to work for minimum wage.”

Cincotta isn’t certain that his shop, open just four months now, will be profitable. “All my eggs are in this basket,” he says. But the risk seems worth it because of the potential reward down the road: escape from a life of living paycheck to paycheck.

More than the Minimum

On Jan. 1, the Massachusetts minimum wage rose from $9 to $10 an hour, and it will rise again in 2017 to $11 an hour — an increase that will affect the wages of approximately 450,000 workers in the state, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

Once Massachusetts hits $11 an hour, it will have the highest statewide minimum wage in the country. But this does not guarantee that full-time workers will be able to make ends meet. For that, employers need to pay a living wage.

The living wage is typically calculated by adding up the cost of a household’s basic needs such as food, housing, utilities, transportation, healthcare, childcare, clothing, taxes, and emergency savings and then figuring out how much a full-time employee working year-round would have to earn per hour to afford it all. And the gap between the minimum and living wages is significant.

What makes a living wage varies widely by state, city, and even neighborhood based on cost of living — which makes it hard to find consensus on the exact amount that living wage activists should be fighting for. Nationally, the Fight For 15 movement advocates for a minimum wage of $15 an hour. The Alliance for a Just Society, which has produced annual wage reports since 1999, maintains that no state has a living wage less than $14.26 an hour. The MIT Living Wage Calculator states that the living wage for an individual in Massachusetts is $12.60. Here in the Valley, the Living Wage Western Mass coalition defines the living wage as $13.18 in Northampton and $12.17 in Western Mass towns other than Northampton and Amherst.

But this much is clear: no minimum wage, anywhere in the country, amounts to a living wage. In fact, 19 states stick to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and two states — Wyoming and Georgia — still adhere to the federal minimum wage set prior to 2009, which was $5.15 an hour.

Our contemporary concept of the living wage didn’t exist in 1933, when the National Industrial Recovery Act set the first national minimum wage at $0.25 an hour, but President Roosevelt proclaimed that year that “no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”

The federal minimum wage has crawled slowly upward over the decades. But when adjusted for inflation, the buying power of that wage peaked in 1968. More than 40 years later, in an unsteady moment between recessions, talk of fair wage legislation is more pressing than ever.

Building a Movement

When the state or federal government takes on the issue of fair wages, legislators almost always frame it as a conversation about the minimum wage, but that’s “old-fashioned,” says Jon Weissman, the lead coordinator of Western Mass Jobs With Justice.

Weissman sees current minimum wage legislation as merely a political compromise, not an objective calculation of a true living wage. “It sets a wage floor that everyone is supposed to rise above,” he says. “The question becomes: how far above that can we get?”

Finding an answer to that is less about particular numbers, Weissman argues, than it is about building a movement. That’s the focus of Jobs With Justice, which been fighting for workers’ job security, standard of living, and right to organize since 1987.

As participation in labor unions has declined, so has the organizational strength of the working class. According to Forbes, only 11.3 percent of all American workers were unionized in 2013 — a 97 year low.

“The living wage was not an issue in, say, 1955, when you couldn’t walk down the street in Springfield without bumping into someone with a union card in their pocket,” Weissman says. “During World War II, we had a culture of unions setting the wage floor. We no longer have that political bargaining power, because of the defeat of the unions … So this conversation always has to start with the question: how many people does it take to create an organization strong enough to extract the wage?”

That fight for fair pay isn’t just with legislators, says Rose Bookbinder — it’s often with the employers themselves.

“It’s great that we have wage laws on the books, but if workers don’t know about the laws, and employers don’t enforce them, then the law is irrelevant,” says Bookbinder, who works with the Northampton-based Pioneer Valley Workers Center to combat wage theft. The center is currently focusing on organizing low-wage and immigrant workers in local farm and restaurant jobs.

“The wage is just one part of making these jobs sustainable,” she says. “A lot of employers follow the law, but it’s in the low-wage sectors that you see the most non-compliance. Many restaurants don’t follow basic minimum wage laws at all.”

For the past year and a half, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center has been collaborating with the UMass Labor Center to organize workers, distribute surveys, hold know-your-rights training sessions, and develop a handbook of basic wage laws.

“We want to paint a picture of the systemic problems that exist,” Bookbinder says. “It hurts our local economy to see this extreme wage theft going on.”

Closing the Gap

It has always been difficult to prove that an increased minimum wage will improve economic growth on a national level. But it is much easier to argue that it helps to reduce economic inequality.

In 2014, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour would negatively impact income only for families earning six times the poverty threshold, while it would raise incomes for families below the threshold. That same month, the Pew Center reported that 73 percent of Americans supported this increase in the minimum wage.

That would greatly improve the financial outlook for young Americans, considering that more than 70 percent of hourly minimum-wage workers are under 34 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What about higher than $10.10? Will the minimum wage and the living wage ever be the same thing? Should we even expect such a thing of the minimum wage, given all of the variables that make calculating a real-time living wage so tricky?

Eve Weinbaum, director of the UMass Labor Center, doesn’t see why not. “I’d say the goal of the movement is for the two to become the same thing,” she says. “It used to seem unrealistic, because the minimum wage hadn’t gone up in so long. But ultimately, I’d say that’s the goal. What’s the point of having a minimum wage if it doesn’t keep you and your family out of poverty?”

The big group that’s left out right now, Weinbaum says, is tipped workers, who currently make $3.35 an hour. That’s a lot of workers, considering that employees in the restaurant industry make up 40 percent of all minimum-wage workers in America. “The restaurant industry has a very strong lobby that advocates against raising the tipped wage,” Weinbaum says.

Which makes it a hard fight on the state and national level. But individual businesses, of course, may take matters into their own hands. The living wage movement recently inspired Haymarket Cafe in Northampton, for example, to completely rethink its pay scale. This past fall, Haymarket eliminated tipping and raised the wage for all of its staff members to $14 an hour — a rate that will increase $1 annually for the next three years until reaching $17 an hour in 2018.

On average, women and people of color already earn less per hour, but eliminating the tipped wage in favor of a living wage, as Haymarket has done, significantly improves quality of life for women who work tipped jobs, Weinbaum says. “Sexual harassment is a real consequence of the tipped wage,” she says. “When workers have to make customers happy in order to make their wages, they can’t report customers for inappropriate behavior, because the customer is the one paying most of their salary.”

Low-wage employees have also been struggling in recent years with a decrease in reliable work schedules, she adds. “It used to be that a majority of people making minimum wage had some version of a full-time schedule. Even if they weren’t making a living wage, they had somewhat predictable hours.”

But this has broken down over the past decade, particularly in retail, food service, and restaurant work. It’s more common than ever, Weinbaum says, for workers to not know their weekly schedules until Monday, or to be asked to show up to work to be told whether or not they’re working that day.

“It’s made it untenable to have a second job to supplement your pay,” she says. “How can you ever hope to plan for a second job if you don’t know the hours at your first?”

When the Bubble Burst

This is how livelihoods begin to fall into the cracks in-between paychecks. Not only do minimum-wage jobs provide less than livable income, but fluctuations in hours and staffing can critically disrupt anything grander than short-term plans.

When Rose Webster-Smith bought a house in Springfield with her husband in 2006, it seemed a safe investment. She was working a minimum-wage job, but her husband was making overtime pay on a 50-hour-a-week work schedule for a ladder and scaffolding company. She wrote a letter to the bank stating that she planned to stay in the workforce, and the financing was a breeze.

Then the housing bubble burst. Overtime pay became a thing of the past. On days that her husband was sick, Webster-Smith — who was earning $7.50 an hour through part-time work at a convenience store, part-time work at a liquor store, and two nights of bartending a week — became the sole breadwinner for her family of five.

Work has improved since then. Her husband is now a trucker, and Webster-Smith, 38, works full-time for the Springfield nonprofit No One Leaves, which helps to organize and educate families facing displacement as a result of foreclosure. She first became a member of the group out of necessity — she and her family have been living in a foreclosed home for over four years now, fighting on the premise that the foreclosure was illegal. “Massachusetts doesn’t have a judicial foreclosure system,” she says, “so all the bank has to say is: we did everything right.”

“I didn’t know when I bought the house that it was never worth what we paid for it,” she adds. “We thought at the time we could afford it. If I knew then what I know now, I would never have signed that paperwork.”

Last April, Webster-Smith told her side of the story in an op-ed for MassLive, in which she denounced corporate banks and the predatory lending practices that crashed the economy. “No family living in a foreclosed home wants a free ride,” she wrote. “All we want is to stay in our homes, and are willing to pay whatever we are able to, but the banks refuse to work with us.”

The online backlash was swift. Many commenters had zero empathy.

“What is wrong with people who need to be prevented from themselves making bad decisions?” wrote commenter atowntoo. “Too many people borrow way more than they should and then blame others when they can’t pay it back.”

“What about those pesky credit cards that someone forced you to run up?” wrote commenter soxliker. “These are the same people who want their student loans forgiven. We have cultivated a sick society.”

Commenter farmingfor kept their opinion short and simple: “Owning a home is a privilege, not a right.”

But from talking with Webster-Smith, it doesn’t sound like she felt that she was owed a house. The decision to purchase was a choice she weighed carefully — one that could help spur a new chapter in life for her family to grow into.

“The worst part about the decline of home ownership in this country,” she tells me, “is that it’s how the majority of people secure their wealth. For many, the only real wealth they’ll ever know is having that equity in a home.”

Since No One Leaves opened in 2010, Webster-Smith says, more than 600 local residents have come through the doors of the office in Springfield’s South End in search of legal assistance and a sense of solidarity. Members are of all ages and backgrounds — “the housing crisis does not discriminate,” she says — but they do all have one thing in common: they are the low-income working class.

“The majority of our members fell behind on their mortgage because they lost a job,” she explains. “A lot of them have found new jobs, but the pay is often nowhere near what they were making when they bought the house. A lot of them are so underwater on their mortgages that they’ll never have equity unless the bank modifies their loan. More and more, banks are refusing to do that.”

Not everyone sympathizes. Webster-Smith has read the comments about her online. “They say I should have paid my bills — that I have $18,000 in credit card judgments against me,” she says. “Yeah, I had a choice. The choice was to feed my kids and keep the lights on, or pay the credit card.”

For her duties at No One Leaves — which include door-to-door advocacy, community meetings, panel talks, and weekly appearances in housing court to assist struggling members — Webster-Smith is being paid a living wage for the first time in her life.

“When you’re struggling so hard to take care of your family, the stress and depression that can come with that is enormous,” she says. “I feel like I can breathe for the first time since having kids. If I lose my housing fight, I have money to be able to rent a place. That’s not my goal — but I don’t have to worry about being put out onto the street.”

The Boat

Jeremy Johnson knows the feeling. He’s been there.

Johnson was homeless as a 16-year-old. He refers to his friend Frank Cincotta — who runs Hashbury Headshop — as “an inspiration.” Now 29, Johnson lives with his grandfather, sister, and nephew in Springfield. “They know I can’t put in a lot of money, but I do what I can,” he says. “I can save a little money, but it’s hard living check-to-check.”

Johnson currently works six days a week through a temp agency, getting to and from work on the bus or by borrowing his sister’s car. He has a driver’s license and an automotive degree, but he can’t see himself able to afford a car of his own anytime soon.

It’s frustrating, he says, to have to choose between saving money, eating, paying the electric bill, and going to the doctor. “I’ve always worked really low-income jobs,” he says, “and a lot of minimum-wage work is bull. People should get paid what they’re worth.”

As the minimum wage in Massachusetts rises again next year, and as civic-minded community members like Cincotta, Webster-Smith, and Johnson work to draw attention to the ongoing need for a living wage, conditions may improve with time.

What will remain, though, is prejudice toward the disenfranchised — and a strong camaraderie among those who bear witness to each other’s struggle.

During his homeless days, Johnson remembers sleeping on the back steps of Springfield Housing Court. “I didn’t have a cover. I had nothing. And a homeless guy who was also sleeping there gave me a cover, a pillow, and told me about some work the next morning.

“Money is crazy man,” he says. “You’d think the people that got it would be nicer — that they’d sympathize. But we have to look to the people who are in the same boat as us. The greatest, nicest people — who’ve brought me in, fed me, kept me warm — are the people who have nothing.”•

Contact Hunter Styles at hstyles@valleyadvocate.com.

Hunter Styles

Author: Hunter Styles

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