BROWN: Think bigger

The Living Wage Campaign at the University has admirable goals, but should apply them more broadly

Over the past few years, the Living Wage Campaign has periodically made headlines as they have pushed for the University to establish a policy that all its employees and employees of its contracted companies be paid a “living wage,” or a salary sufficient for the needs of a family of four. While this campaign has often drawn attention to itself for the wrong reasons, such as with its unsuccessful hunger strike two years ago, the cause itself is a worthy one. But where the movement makes a mistake is in its target — to make a real difference in Charlottesville, a living wage law must be established by the city of Charlottesville itself.

The University, while a major employer in Charlottesville,is only responsible for about a thousand of the workers in the city that do not receive a living wage. According to a 2012 report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Charlottesville area has tens of thousands of people working jobs that pay less than the $13 per hour living wage local standard. The University changing its policy would be helpful, but would only solve a small part of the serious wage problems from which many areas of the city suffer. If Charlottesville was to pass a living wage requirement into law, then all of the workers in the area would benefit.

Many will say that while living wage efforts are well-intentioned, they have the unintended consequence of reducing employment within the regions that pass living-wage legislation. Thus, any benefits created by passing a living wage law would be counterbalanced by the loss of jobs, as well as increased prices to offset the worker salaries. These complaints are reasonable, and appear to make sense. But they are not supported by the data. A recent study of San Francisco found that the passage of multiple labor laws, resulting in over a billion dollars of additional wages being paid to workers over a decade, had no noticeable effect on employment, increased worker productivity and created price increases of only around 3 percent. The laws also decreased worker turnover, which demonstrates that increasing wages doesn’t only increase the salaries of those affected, it adds job security for workers and committed employees for employers. And these benefits impacted even the restaurant industry, which primarily employs low-wage workers.

All of this data would seem to suggest that passing some form of living wage law could only help Charlottesville. The type of workers that would be affected by these laws are those who work in location-specific jobs, such as in construction or restaurants. These jobs could not be moved by the companies to save money, and as the San Francisco study shows, employment would likely be unaffected. Since increased wages have been shown to increase worker productivity as well, there would appear to be benefits to employers to offset any annoyance at the additional payroll.

Increasing minimum-wages by any amount would also likely provide a stimulus to the local economy, as those affected would likely spend their money in Charlottesville. This added business could offset some of the increased payroll for employers.

A living wage is an idea that makes sense on a moral level for the University. But by affecting change in all of Charlottesville instead, not only would the University be forced to comply with these standards, but tens of thousands of other local workers would benefit without creating any major economic issues. And if the University decided to take a leading role in pushing this issue on the local level, it could benefit our relationship with the permanent residents of Charlottesville as well. For all of these reasons, any future embodiment of the Living Wage campaign should shift its focus from the Rotunda to City Hall.

Forrest Brown is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.

Published March 27, 2014 in Opinion

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