The Tompkins County Labor Center continues its fight to have the minimum wage in the county equal its living wage. In upstate New York, the minimum wage increased from $9.60 to $13.20 between 2016 and 2021. However, the living wage for a single person living in Tompkins County is currently estimated at $16.61 an hour – and the living wage for a family with children is much higher. .
A living wage calculation is made by Alternatives Federal Credit Union every two years based on cost of living data such as prices for rent, food, transportation, communications, recreation and energy. saving. According to data from the workers’ center, “For full-time employees between 2015 and 2022, the overall AFCU figure increased from $13.77 to $16.61.” However, they say it is lower for workers whose employers provide health insurance.
According to the latest ACFU report calculation which has been updated for inflation, a living wage of $16.61 per hour would total $2,878 per month and $34,538 per year. However, these numbers are the result of cost of living data which indicates that the average cost of rent in Tompkins County is $1,127 per month – while Zillow estimated the average rent for a studio apartment in Ithaca was $1,900 as of October 18.
The New York Statewide minimum wage is currently set at $14.20 per hour and is not calculated based on the cost of living. In fact, the statewide minimum wage pushes people into poverty and forces them to depend on social services to survive.
A study published by Drexel University said if the federal minimum wage kept pace with the average cost of living, the minimum wage would be over $20 an hour. According to the study, “a true living wage that supports a basic standard of living without food and housing insecurity would be between $20 and $26 or more per hour depending on the state.”
A living wage of $20 to $26 is much higher than the ACFU’s projection of $16.61, so it looks like the Workers’ Center should ask the ACFU to review how they calculate their living wage. valued.
Due to social services means testing, people are required to maintain incomes at the poverty line in order to be eligible for assistance. In a means-tested system, there is always a cut-off point, so many people living paycheck to paycheck who may seem financially stable but would actually benefit from receiving assistance are left out.
In addition, it has long been known that large numbers of people in need tend to miss out on assistance programs because they don’t know about the programs, don’t realize they are eligible for them, or are hesitant. to claim them. .
For example, social services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which help low-income families feed themselves, are significantly underutilized in Tompkins County. The executive summary of the Tompkins County Food System Plan explains that of “SNAP-eligible Tompkins residents, only 30-40 percent are enrolled.”
The summary went on to say that programs like SNAP don’t cover all food costs and their enrollment processes are difficult to navigate. For example, “a third of food-insecure residents earn too much to qualify for government food assistance programs, but struggle to stretch a limited food budget.”
While the state’s periodic minimum wage increases are a step in the right direction, it continues to fall short of a living wage. According to the Tompkins County Workers Center, “it’s the difference between a basic but secure standard of living and a standard of living defined by impoverishment, insecurity, periodic family crises, and dependence on social services.”
The county’s task force examining the possibility of passing a law requiring businesses to pay a living wage minimum wage found that most businesses in the county support the plan. According to the task force’s study, “63% of employers surveyed favored living wage legislation in 2019, and that number had risen to 78% when surveyed in 2021”.
The group also found that the largest employers in the county are in education services, food services, health care and retail – all of these businesses employ workers who earn less than living wage in the Tompkins county.
If the living wage legislation is implemented, it would result in wage increases for “up to 40% of all workers and up to 75% of black workers”. The task force also found that around 3% of workers would lose access to means-tested social services due to increased earnings due to living wage legislation. However, the vast majority of workers could continue to receive assistance.
Those who are skeptical about the feasibility of making the minimum wage a living wage want to keep looking at whether jobs would be destroyed or unemployment would rise as a result of living wage legislation.
The Ithaca Times reached out to the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce to get their perspective on the matter, but they did not respond to comments until press time.