Standing beside the downtown chalkboard scribbled full of political and social slogans, proponents of a living wage took Labor Day as a chance to credit several local businesses and organizations for paying employees enough to live on.
On Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall on Monday, members of the Living Wage Coalition of Central Virginia gave thanks and framed certificates to 10 employers that have upped hourly pay to a minimum of $15 or have raised wages to $12.50 with a pledge to get to $13.50 within two years.
Coalition members said the current federal and state minimum wage of $7.25 does not come close to paying for housing, food and utilities for area workers.
“We find it unacceptable that in one of the wealthiest nations in the world it is possible to work full-time but still be poor,” said Kim Crater, one of the event’s organizers. “The term ‘working poor’ should not exist in our nation or our community.”
Crater noted that minimum-wage workers gross about $1,257 per month working full time. The median cost of a one-bedroom apartment — the price at which there are just as many apartments with higher rents as with lower rents — is about $1,230 a month.
“A person making minimum wage has no realistic chance of supporting themselves here,” Crater said. “In fact, for a person earning minimum wage to support themselves, they would have to have more than three full-time jobs.”
Crater said studies show that higher household incomes result in lower rates of child abuse/neglect, divorce, crime and drug addiction. Although the coalition is exhorting state and federal legislatures to raise the minimum wage, she noted that there has been no action from lawmakers in a decade.
That, she said, is where individuals come into play.
“We all have the ability to improve life here in the Charlottesville area,” Crater said. “We can patronize businesses and organizations that pay a living wage and encourage others to begin doing so. Vote with your dollars and also your votes.”
Coalition members said they did not come downtown to criticize employers but to praise them as part of the group’s Living Wage Certification Program.
The program’s qualifications are based on research by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia; Piedmont Virginia Community College’s Orange Dot Report 3.0; UVa President Jim Ryan’s community working group; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator; and the Economic Policy Institute Family Budget calculator.
“We want the public to know that these employers are making our community better for all of us by paying a living wage,” Crater said. “We hope the public will choose to support these businesses and organizations.”
The coalition recognized nine employers for paying a minimum of $15 an hour: API Service Center; the Center for Nonprofit Excellence; Martin Horn Construction; Stereo Types; Virginia National Bank, VSI Supply; Diamondback Toolbelts; Trend Salon; and Virginia Organizing.
Martin Hardware was honored for being an “aspiring living wage employer.”
“We recognize that not all employers who believe in paying a living wage are able to pay $15 an hour immediately,” Crater said.
For Martin Horn Construction, paying a good wage is important for keeping good employees and for the quality of the business’ product, company officials said.
“One of the keys to our business is the length of time our employees have been with us,” said John “Jack” Horn, president of the company. “Our average tenure for field employees is 10 years, and a big part of that is treating them well, and part of treating them well is paying them well.”
Ted Horn, the company’s chief executive officer and Jack Horn’s brother, said paying employees well does not eat into the company’s ability to make a profit or sustain itself through economic downturns.
“If you treat people well, they work hard for you and they care about the product and the company,” he said. “When a recession comes, it’s the performance of the people in the field that will continue making you money.”
“The lowest-paid guy on the crew, if he’s making enough money to pay his bills and have some dignity, he’s going to work better for the crew he’s on, and that’s going to make that crew better,” said Jack Horn. “If a downturn hits, you pay yourself a little less and keep your people working as best you can.”
Crater said the efforts of the honored employers also helps to improve the safety and welfare of the community.
“If you already earn a living wage, that’s great,” she said. “But your life here in our community will get even better if your neighbors also begin earning a living wage.”