"You shall not withhold the wages of the poor and needy laborer." Those words, written centuries ago in Deuteronomy, are being taken to heart here as the Los Angeles City Council considers a "living wage" ordinance.
The living wage being discussed is enough to bring a family of four up to the federal poverty level--$7.50 an hour plus health coverage and other benefits or $9.50 an hour without those benefits. The ordinance would apply to those companies holding service contracts with or receiving subsidies from the city.
Some have attacked the ordinance as unrealistic and unaffordable, but two recent studies show that it can be implemented with little impact on the city budget, no employment loss and no loss of city services. This is good news. But as a moral people we need to examine values, not only costs.
How much do we value the people who work in our city? What are their lives worth? Let's make it personal. Let's think about a father of two who makes his living as a janitor cleaning a Los Angeles landmark, the Central Library. His employer is the company that holds the maintenance contract.
The janitor now works six days a week and makes $4.75 an hour, taking home approximately $700 a month in a county where the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $855. His wife has diabetes, but his job does not have medical benefits. That is also why he did not seek medical attention when he hurt his back a few months ago. It's everything he can do to pay the $115 monthly bill for the family's medications.
In another case, Elvira (not her real name) works in a meat-packing plant that received a low-interest $4.6-million loan through the city to move to Los Angeles. She supports herself and her 5-year-old daughter on $4.75 an hour, or $9,880 a year. The plant is cold, but she is expected to pay for jackets and gloves out of her earnings.
City contracts are certainly sufficiently lucrative to pay a living wage. The company that contracts to clean the Central Library nets an estimated annual profit of more than 36% (based on an analysis of their contract and interviews with knowledgeable people in the offices of the city's chief legislative analyst and General Services Department).
We have the right and responsibility to see that such employees are paid enough to support themselves and their families in basic dignity. We have a right and a responsibility to say to businesses: If you want to benefit from our tax dollars, then we can require that all who do the labor are paid at least a living wage.
A fair and living wage not only makes ethical sense, it also makes good economic sense. People who can feed and care for their families and provide for their medical care are no longer dependent on the social services that taxpayers must otherwise provide. Indeed, when we think about it, why should we allow companies that benefit from our tax dollars to pay their workers less than a living wage and then leave the rest of us to pay for health care and food stamps?
A healthy society--less poverty, less crime, more people with a stake in the community--is what will most help businesses in Los Angeles. By not withholding the wages of the poor and needy laborer, we are all better off as a people.