ITHACA, N.Y. – “The most depressing feeling that you can think of is being paid and being broke the same day,” Nazelle Davis said at a panel discussion of the latest findings from the Alternatives Federal Credit Union Living Wage Study on Friday.

Davis used to work in retail, pushing out 12-hour shifts yet ending up without enough money to make ends meet. “I had to roll the dice on bills, like should I pay the car insurance and not have lights in the house and crack out the candles, or should I pay NYSEG and just take the bus?”

Davis is now a living wage employee at AFCU. She said she has confidence that she’ll be able to pay her bills and is able to put a little money away to cover emergencies, which is a major stress reliever. Davis spoke Friday alongside experts, advocates and local leaders who want to see a living wage as the local minimum wage.

According to AFCU’s latest calculations, that would mean paying full-time employees an hourly wage of $14.28 or a gross salary of $29,696. The baseline living wage calculated by AFCU does not include childcare and assumes access to employer-provided health insurance. The study estimates childcare costs in the county range from $17,844 for pre-schoolers to $22,524 for infants and uses AFCU’s insurance package as an anchor.

Leni Hochman, former chief operations officer for AFCU, was part of the group that launched the first living wage study 25 years ago. The research began as a way for AFCU to examine its own employment practices. Hochman said the credit union’s management heard from a staff member whose rent was being subsidized by her parents, and wondered, “Can a person live with dignity in Tompkins County on our starting wage?”

They treated the question as an empirical one but found nobody had answered it, so they formed a staff committee called “the wage watchers” and began gathering research.

Culling information from government and commercial data sources, they began to piece together a budget for subsistence living in Tompkins County. They factored in big ticket items like housing and transportation as well as smaller items that impact quality of life, including recreation, personal care supplies and savings.

In 1994, they found a worker would need to earn $13,630 at a minimum to get by in Tompkins, so they raised pay at the bottom of the ladder and compressed pay increases at the top.

AFCU is still working to improve its internal policies with findings from its biennial living wage study. Eric Levine, AFCU’s CEO, said the credit union is going beyond the bare minimum by increasing starting wages to $15 per hour this year, and they are adjusting how salary increases and retirement contributions are calculated to reduce inequality between top and bottom earners.

The study, though, has spread well beyond AFCU over the past 25 years. Community outreach is coordinated by the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, which oversees a  certification program that currently designates 119 local employers as “living wage employers.”

Related: Rally highlights women’s, families’ call for a living wage in Tompkins County

Ashley Cake, who owns and operates The Watershed bar with Dave Thomas, is one of the county’s living wage employers. Speaking on Friday’s panel, she said getting the certification was a no-brainer, both because the process was easy and because she knew from the start that she wanted to be a responsible small business owner.

She pointed out, though, that offering a living wage is not enough to ensure workers can get by comfortably. She shared the story of a bartender raising two school-age kids, who takes home as much as $30 an hour on busy nights but barely covers babysitting costs on slow nights. Cake said she and Thomas set their own salaries by calculating a $17 per hour, 40 hour per week rate, and said they end up landing in a middle income zone where they can’t afford private health insurance but don’t qualify for subsidized plans.

Cake, who sits on the AFCU board, said the living wage study is important because it offers a starting point for conversations about the cost of living and economic justice. It should be treated as a baseline, though, to which higher healthcare or family costs can be added.

What does the living wage look like if you’re shopping for insurance on the open market, “swimming with the sharks,” as Rob Brown, operations manager for the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, put it?

According to Brown’s calculations, a worker would need to earn $15.37 an hour to afford a silver level plan on the New York State marketplace. That wage is $1.09 higher than the wage a person covered by AFCU’s benefits package would need to take home.

Related: Should Tompkins make a living wage standard? Local group to study possible impacts

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick is part of a committee exploring how to establish a living wage county-wide. Since he took office, the City of Ithaca has become a living wage employer, and on Friday Myrick said he encourages all local employers to do the same.

“I don’t think most folks who have never experienced poverty know what it’s like to be poor,” Myrick said.

Speaking about growing up in Earlville, New York, Myrick said poverty isn’t about not having things you want. To be poor, he said, “is to be afraid all the time,” to worry about when your next meal will come and whether you’ll have to move out at the end of the month.

“I want all the families in the City of Ithaca not to live in fear,” he said.

Myrick said increasing wages would also be good for local taxpayers and business owners, because poverty strains public services and limits families’ ability to spend money in the community.

How do we keep our economy growing? According to Myrick, a living wage is a key part of the answer.

Since the first AFCU living wage study, similar studies have sprung up in cities across the U.S. and some municipalities have passed local living wage or minimum wage ordinances. In New York, the upstate minimum wage is currently $11.10 and will increase to $12.50 at the start of 2021. New York City, Long Island and Westchester County have higher minimum wages, and the city sets a higher minimum wage for large employers.

A local working group is exploring whether Tompkins County could set a local minimum wage above the state level, a move that would require authorization from Albany. In the meantime, the certification program offers a voluntary way for employers to verify and publicize their commitment to paying at least subsistence wages.

Featured image: The Workers’ Center’s annual Labor Day Picnic. (Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.