ITHACA, N.Y. — “Let Tompkins live,” dozens of demonstrators chanted on the Ithaca Commons on Tuesday afternoon. The rainy weather didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd of about 50, which was brought together to Rally for a Living Wage by the United Association for Labor Education, Tompkins County Workers’ Center and Cornell Graduate Students United.
Many participants were in Ithaca for the UALE’s Northeast Summer School for Women in Unions and Worker Organizations, held this week at Cornell University.
The coalition sought to build support for a county-wide living wage of $15.11. Minimum wage in Tompkins County is currently set by the New York state legislature at $10.40. According to the Alternatives Federal Credit Union, $15.11 is the amount a person in the county without employer-provided health insurance must earn to meet basic needs like housing, food and heat.
That estimate does not take dependents, including children, into account. The AFCU calculates that child care for a preschool-aged child costs just under $13,000 a year in the area. For a full-time worker to cover child care costs for one child, that means earning an extra $6.25 an hour.
Valerie King, who addressed the crowd as a member of the UALE, aimed to put the current minimum wage in perspective.
“$10.40 an hour – what is that? That’s equivalent to four cups of Starbucks coffee,” she said.
King said the gap between the minimum wage and costs of living means, “People are living one paycheck or one unexpected expense away from being homeless, jobless and making a choice of whether to feed their families. … We must fight for the equality, dignity and sustainability for all working families.”
Speakers at the rally emphasized that poverty is an issue that affects everyone.
Alisa Camp, a member of the Civil Service Employees Association, said, “It’s my problem and it’s your problem too, because poverty is a fundamental human problem.”
At the same time, the event called attention to how women are uniquely affected by low wages. According to the event’s news release, “A disproportionately large number of the professions that pay workers at or near the minimum wage are mainly staffed by women, and minimum wages that can’t cover costs of living (much less caring for children and family members) represent a systematic economic injustice.”
Aubrie James, a member of CGSU, said women who do care work are especially undervalued. “We live under the insidious myth that care work is in our nature,” she said. “Unpaid or underpaid care work in hospitals, classrooms and day cares follows naturally from a long tradition of unpaid household labor.” While CGSU focuses on issues affecting graduate student teachers and researchers, James said the group “stands with the workers of Tompkins County to demand a fair and living wage for all.”
Pete Meyers, coordinator of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, has long pushed for the county to adopt a living wage as its minimum wage. The Workers’ Center uses the AFCU’s biennial estimate as its touchstone. Meyers acknowledges, though, that there are questions that still need to be sorted out. “There are certain problem areas,” he said, when it comes to raising low wages. “The caregiving industry is one of the biggest ones we see.”
According to Meyers, “The caregiving industry is really dominated by women workers, and it gets a lot of state and federal funding. That government funding is inadequate for a living wage.”
Meyers has organized the Tompkins County Minimum Wage Working Group to tackle such issues. The group is chaired by Legislator Anna Kelles and Sally Klingel, of the Scheinman Institute at Cornell’s ILR School, and includes members from local government, businesses and non-profit organizations. “We’re really doing this on a community basis,” Meyers said.
State senate candidate Amanda Kirchgessner said she supports the efforts of the Workers’ Center and its partners. “This is a great show of solidarity,” she said. She said she does not think the fight for a living wage will be simple. She said she has heard concerns that if the minimum wage is increased, single mothers in particular could lose eligibility for some government programs.
“But I think the real question is why doesn’t the minimum wage give single mothers enough money?” Kirchgessner said. “I’m a huge believer that anyone who works 40 hours a week should not be poor.”
If the Tompkins County Legislature approves a living wage as minimum wage, the New York State Legislature would still need to approve the measure. While policy cannot be changed at the local level alone, Kirchgessner said, “If we can’t do it at the local level, there’s no way we’ll get it at the state and national level.”
Those looking to weigh in on Tompkins County minimum wage policy are invited by the Working Group to attend an information gathering session from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Dryden Community Center Café. People who are interested in attending Saturday are asked to sign up here.