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Letter from the Editor: City Council Chooses Social Responsibility

by Lisa Ellison
Guardian editor

Thanks to a close vote last month, Greenville has the opportunity to become a leader in social responsibility.

During their annual joint meeting with the Greenville Utilities Commission (GUC) on April 20, city councilors Rose Glover, Kandie Smith, Marion Blackburn and Mayor Allen Thomas, who broke the tie, voted to examine the salaries of the lowest-paid workers in the city, to be sure they are earning a living wage.

This issue came up when the city and GUC were discussing a 2 percent adjustment to correct pay inequities. There are 39 workers paid below their pay ranges (see the city’s pay scale here) and 148 more in “compression,” which occurs when longer-term employees receive few or no pay increases, while new employees are hired at “market rate,” meaning the salaries of newer hires are very close to the salaries of those who’ve been on the job longer.

There is no video for this portion of the meeting since it was held in GUC’s board room, and the city’s minutes are not complete yet. Calvin Mercer, who voted against the motion, reported on the discussion in his April 21 newsletter, “In addition to the 2 percent [pay adjustment], Councilmember Glover moved that the manager study how to give a subset of the sanitation workers a livable raise [emphasis not added].”

Though I was unsuccessful in reaching Glover to see what she intended with her motion, Blackburn, in a phone interview on April 30, said Glover expressed concern during the meeting about sanitation workers who have to take second jobs on top of their full-time city work in order to support their families.

Blackburn said her own motivation in supporting the motion was in response to a suggestion by City Manager Barbara Lipscomb to look at the category of administrative support positions, primarily staffed by women, because, Blackburn said, “the market has consistently held lower value for positions held by women.”

The primary reason Mercer cites for voting against the motion, which he provides as one trying to hypnotize readers with a regular drum beat, is that even these lowest-paid workers already make over 14 percent above the market rate.

“The workers in her motion,” Mercer wrote, “currently make 14 percent above market.”

Next paragraph, ““Mayor Thomas broke the tie in favor of asking the manager to look into how to give this additional raise to workers currently making 14 percent above market.”

And the next: “I voted against this motion because the workers in question are now making 14 percent above market, the consultant said giving a raise to this group would create compression problems for other workers, and it would violate our policy of not giving raises ‘above market [no emphasis added].’”

census chartThe violation of policy is a more compelling reason not to support it than that stale excuse of “everybody else is!”

There would be some difficulties involved in bumping up the bottom, but not a single one of our elected officials took the job because they thought it would be an easy one. We assume they enjoy a challenge. Besides, the council people aren’t actually–er, shouldn’t–be the ones creating the budget. They tell city staff what’s important to them and their constituents. Problems in the wording of this motion aside, it’s nice to see that at least three of our councilors are willing to say they support the city paying a livable wage to all full-time employees.

Mercer cites creating further compression as one problem with a raise to the lowest-paid workers. It is a valid concern, and one I’m sure city staff could navigate in their budget process.

A more difficult question to answer: what is a livable wage?.

According to MIT’s living wage calculator, a single adult in Greenville needs to earn $8.25 per hour to pay for typical living expenses. Taking no vacation time (or having paid vacation time), at 52 weeks of work per year and 40 hours per week, the annual salary a single person with no dependents needs comes to $17,160.

low-income by regionLooking at the city’s full-time pay scale might make us think this is great news for Greenville. Not a single full-time job at the city pays as low as $17,160. In fact, the lowest rung of the city’s full-time workforce has a minimum of $22,755 (or about $11 per hour).

A worker trying to support one child, according to the same calculator, needs to earn $18.57 per hour, or $38,625 annually to pay for typical living expenses. If we assume that the 216 people employed full-time by the city who earn less than $38,625 are not single parents, things really look great! (Unrelated: do you remember that 2011 census report that lists Greenville as having a percentage of births to unmarried women nearly twice the national percentage?)

U.S. Department of Labor statistics for 2013 say 36 percent of the full-time workforce had children under 18. (Nearly 42 million full-time workers had children under 18 years of age out of over 115 million people 20 and older working full-time.) Nationally 44 percent of children under 18 live in low-income families–oh, and that number is as high at 48 percent in the south.

What can we take from all these numbers?

Most crucially, that chances are good that a full-time city employee is trying to support someone else.

Mustn’t we, as a city, then ask ourselves whether we believe these workers should be able to “make it” without taking second and third jobs?

Society functions better when kids have adults in their lives, and when the most basic unit of society–the household–is not in constant stress over meeting basic needs. When elected officials take a stand for the things that benefit people with the fewest resources, they are doing exactly what we elected them to do: Standing in favor of making our whole community stronger.

So, how do we determine a “fair” wage? Pay needs to be based at least partly on the job, but if a person working “full time”–regardless of the work they do–cannot make ends meet, does society have a duty to respond? If so, how? Clearly, we cannot base wages on individual workers’ household situations. Moreover, the needs of a person with no kids differ vastly from those of a person with one (or more).

I’d love to know what you think. Tell me by sharing your thoughts below.

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