TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Being a living wage employer in Tompkins County is worn as a badge of honor, normally a sticker placed in the front of a store meant to denote that the business pays its workers enough to survive somewhat comfortably in the ever-increasingly expensive county.

But some community members and even some government officials want to implement new laws in Tompkins County that will formalize the living wage here, making it a requirement for employers in the county to pay their employees that wage—which currently sits at $16.61 per hour, as of last month. Upstate New York’s current minimum wage is $13.20 per hour.

But the question, as always, is if it’s actually possible? Would there be enough buy-in from local employers, and would the ramifications of such a policy outweigh the benefits?

A working group informally commissioned by the county has been working on some of those pressing questions for years. Perhaps displaying the complexity of the questions, as reported by representatives of the group Wednesday, even after that time and effort they haven’t been able to come to a consensus answer.

Still, Cornell University ILR Co-Lab Director Ian Greer and Shaianne Osterreich, an Ithaca College Economics professor, presented the group’s research and findings at this week’s Tompkins County Workforce Diversity and Inclusion Committee meeting. The rest of the research team was made up of Reed Eaglesham, Maru Rodriguez, Sally Klingel, Sean O’Brady, Matt Vidal and Russell Weaver. The team was flanked during the meeting by Pete Meyers and Gabriella Carr of the Tompkins County Workers Center.

You can watch the full meeting here.

Perhaps the most interesting (or surprising) tidbit of data found is that Greer said the majority of employers spoken to are in favor of a living wage implementation, though that support certainly wasn’t universal. It seems to be trending in a supportive direction, however: 63 percent of employers surveyed by the group were in favor of living wage legislation in 2019, and Greer said that number had climbed to 78 percent of employers when surveyed in 2021.

The county’s largest employers are in education services, food services, healthcare and retail, and Greer said their research showed all of those sectors have plenty of workers who make under the living wage in Tompkins County. 

Obviously, for some it will be a larger change than others—the burden depends, to a certain extent, on how close they are to paying a living wage already or how big a company’s workforce is. 

“Many had creative ideas for how to adapt (reducing costs, becoming more efficient, increasing revenue), but ability varies,” according to the presentation.

Employer mindset is the main issue, according to Greer. Large employers are traditionally more opposed to legislation like this, but also have the resources to more easily implement it. 

But if implemented, the benefits are potentially significant, according to the presented research. Living wage legislation would “read to pay increases for 30-40 percent of all workers, and 65-75 percent of Black workers.” The team also noted that around 2-3 percent of affected workers would cross a benefits cliff because of higher pay, but 97 percent of them would not.

In the same breath, though, the challenges and risks were voiced, though the actual number of employers who would take negative action as a result.

“Small number of employers face severe financial consequences: would cut jobs, intensify work, shift benefit costs, raise prices, cut services and/or take it out of margins,” the report acknowledged.

The local higher education institutions are close to living wage employers, the presenters noted, but not when it comes to student employees. 

The fact that the research is now done, Greer said, should help decision makers with potential implementation, even if the working group couldn’t come to a true decision on feasibility.

“The main question is whether jobs will be destroyed and unemployment would increase,” Greer said, but increases in the minimum wage in the past few years have not hurt jobs and employment locally has increased. “But job destruction is not the issue here.”

There was some discussion regarding whether the legislation would actually be injurious to employers or whether it would just inflict some necessary discomfort while benefiting their employees.

As for actual implementation, Tompkins County Legislator Anne Koreman was explicit in her support. She said the fact that worker wages are rising right now, in part as a reaction to the severe inflation seen over the last several months, makes this a uniquely opportune time to introduce something like this in the county. She expressed strong interest in moving quickly, as did Tompkins County Legislator Veronica Pillar (who was on the initial working group, but wasn’t a legislator at the time).

Committee Chair Henry Granison was more eager to try to reassemble the working group for some further work, but those involved said that was probably too burdensome to do because of the amount of time that has passed, with some members having started new phases of their lives and even moved out of the area.

Koreman expressed interest in acting on the legislation quickly. Whether that’s in the cards or not isn’t obvious, since it would obviously face far more debate in the actual county legislature. There’s obvious desire among county legislators to see a fully fleshed out report.

“This needs to happen now,” the Workers Center’s Gabriella Carr said. “Not as someone from the working group, as someone from the Tompkins County Workers Center and representing the people that you represent.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com