Tompkins County living wage study reveals racial disparities

Living wage legislation would result in wage increases for 30% to 40% of all Tompkins County workers and 65% to 75% of black workers, according to a new guidance note led by the ILR School.

“I was really struck by the racial disparity,” said Ian Greer, director of the ILR Ithaca Co-Lab, which led the study. “We’ve talked about racial disparities throughout this pandemic, and when it comes to living wages, they’re really stark.”

The research was commissioned by Tompkins County as part of the Tompkins County Living Wage Task Force. Convened by Pete Meyers of the Tompkins County Worker Center and Anna Kelles, then county legislator and now New York State Assemblywoman, the group includes local elected officials, employers and activists.

Members gathered relevant labor market data for Tompkins County and then conducted analysis to understand how a living wage increase would affect benefits. Finally, Greer conducted an employer study, interviewing 40 employers to assess how pay increases would affect them.

The term “living wage” refers to a notional level of income that allows individuals or families to afford adequate housing, food, and other necessities. The researchers used a calculation of Living Wage from Ithaca-based Alternatives Federal Credit Union. Currently, the living wage for Tompkins County is $16.61 per hour, while the current upstate New York minimum wage is $13.20 per hour.

Research published in May 2021 estimated that 660 black workers in Tompkins County earned less than a living wage and 343 earned more. Among white workers, about 11,000 earned less, while 26,000 earned more.

The group found that only 2-3% of workers would lose benefits from government assistance programs — such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance or Medicaid — if they received raises. But, Greer said, fewer workers would be affected if they reduced the number of hours worked or if benefit thresholds were reformed to allow for more earned income. The group also found that although employers’ views varied, most supported the implementation of living wage legislation in principle.

“We found that there are a lot of employers who aren’t affected by this because they’re already paying a living wage,” Greer said. “We found that a lot of employers who don’t pay a living wage try to do that and they adapt their practices and find ways to do that. We also found that there are employers who already pay a living wage , but who oppose the legislation for mainly philosophical reasons.

The researchers’ guidance note identifies issues raised by employers:

  • HHow organizations can adapt: A clear timeline, financial support and advisory expertise were all suggested as possible ways for policy makers to help.
  • Fairness to long-tenured workers: Most employers – even some who supported the living wage proposal – were concerned that raising the minimum wage to a living wage would narrow the pay gap between more experienced and less experienced workers, and be considered by experienced workers as unfair.
  • Possible exclusion of certain workers: For example, restaurants, bars, and cafes would object to applying living wage to tipped workers, as they view tips as an important work incentive.

Greer said that while the task force does not take a definitive position on the matter, its analysis gives a clear indication that a substantial increase in the minimum wage would reduce inequality.

In addition to Greer, researchers from the ILR school – including Russell Weaver, Sally Klingel, Reed Eaglesham and Maru Rodriguez – as well as colleagues from Ithaca College and McMaster University presented their findings in August to the committee on Diversity and Inclusion in the County Legislature Workplace.

Julie Greco is a senior communication specialist at the ILR School.

Michael A. Bynum