County officials are still discussing the feasibility, risks and benefits of a living wage requirement

TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY—Being a living wage employer in Tompkins County is worn as a badge of honor, normally a sticker placed on the front of a store meant to indicate that the company is paying its workers enough to survive quite comfortably in the expensive department.

But some community members and even some government officials want to implement new laws in Tompkins County that will formalize living wage here, requiring employers in the county to pay this wage to their employees, which currently sits at 16, $61 an hour, same as last month. The current minimum wage in upstate New York is $13.20 per hour.

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

An informal county-mandated task force has been working on some of these pressing issues for years. Perhaps showing the complexity of the issues, as group representatives reported on Wednesday, even after this time and effort, they were unable to reach a consensual answer.

Still, Cornell University ILR co-lab director Ian Greer and Ithaca College economics professor Shaianne Osterreich presented the group’s research and findings at the diversity committee meeting. and the inclusion of the Tompkins County workforce this week. The rest of the research team consisted of Reed Eaglesham, Maru Rodriguez, Sally Klingel, Sean O’Brady, Matt Vidal and Russell Weaver. The team was joined at 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) piece of information found is that Greer said the majority of employers surveyed were in favor of implementing a living wage, although that support was certainly not universal. However, it appears the trend is favourable: 63% of employers surveyed by the group favored living wage legislation in 2019, and Greer said that number had risen to 78% of employers in the survey in 2019. 2021.

The county’s largest employers are in educational services, food services, health care and retail, and Greer said their research has shown that all of those sectors have many workers who earn less than living wage in Tompkins County.

Obviously, for some this will be a bigger change than for others – the burden depends, to some extent, on the extent to which they are already willing to pay a living wage or the size of the workforce work of a company.

“Many had creative ideas on how to adapt (reduce costs, become more efficient, increase revenue), but capacity varies,” according to the presentation.

The employer mentality is the main problem, according to Greer. Large employers are traditionally more opposed to such legislation, but also have the resources to implement it more easily.

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

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

“A small number of employers face severe financial consequences: cutting jobs, scaling up work, shifting benefit costs, raising prices, cutting services and/or removing them from margins,” the report acknowledges.

Local higher education institutions are close to living-wage employers, the presenters noted, but not when it comes to employed students.

The fact that the research is now complete, Greer said, should help decision makers with a potential implementation, even if the task force couldn’t make a real decision on feasibility.

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

There was a discussion about whether the legislation would actually be harmful to employers or if it would simply inflict necessary discomfort while benefiting their employees.

As for the actual implementation, Tompkins County Legislator Anne Koreman was explicit in her support. She said the fact that workers’ wages are rising right now, in part in response to the high inflation seen in recent months, makes this a particularly good time to introduce something like this to the county. She expressed a keen interest in moving quickly, as did Tompkins County Legislator Veronica Pillar (who was on the original task force, but was not a legislator at the time).

Committee chairman Henry Granison was more keen to try to bring the task force together for additional work, but those involved said it was probably too cumbersome to do because of the time that had passed. some members having entered new phases of their lives. and even left the region.

Koreman has expressed interest in moving quickly on the legislation. Whether or not that’s in the cards is unclear, as that would obviously face a lot more debate in the county legislature. There is a clear desire among county lawmakers to see a fully fleshed out report.

“It has to happen now,” said Gabriella Carr of the Workers Center. “Not as a member of the task force, as a person from the Tompkins County Labor Center and representing the people you represent.”

Michael A. Bynum