Wage increase brings limited optimism - Catholic Courier

Wage increase brings limited optimism

This month, New York’s minimum-wage workers saw their paychecks reflect a state-mandated raise of 85 cents per hour. But is this a sufficient increase?

In many cases the unfortunate answer is no, according to two area Catholic Charities officials.

The minimum wage of $6.00 per hour took effect Jan. 1, 2005. It is scheduled to increase to $6.75 per hour on Jan. 1, 2006, and $7.15 per hour on Jan. 1, 2007. These figures became official in November 2004 when the New York State Legislature overrode Gov. George Pataki’s veto.

“We’re always happy when workers who earn such low wages get a few more dollars. Unfortunately, when (the minimum wage) reaches $7.15 an hour in 2007, it will be too little too late. That won’t keep up with the cost of living and inflation,” said Kathleen Dubel, justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities of the Southern Tier.

“It’s certainly not enough — not a living wage,” agreed Edie Reagan, justice-and-peace coordinator with Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga.

Reagan and Dubel have been involved in numerous efforts to promote a “living wage,” the amount a single wage earner in a family must earn in order not to fall below the federal government’s poverty line. The figure varies depending on family size, but Reagan said an estimated living wage in Tompkins County is well over $8.00 per hour.

In Chemung County, Dubel said that “people in this region really need $9 to $10 an hour to pay rent and utilities. The utilities are really rising.” She also noted that many people who require Catholic Charities services are currently working at minimum-wage jobs.

Nonetheless, Reagan said the state minimum-wage legislation is a move in the right direction.

“We were actually very happy that at least this small step has been taken. We were quite shocked and dismayed when Pataki vetoed the raise initially,” she said. “So we’re heartened to see there is some small progress being made.”

Dubel and Reagan said they would continue urge political and business leaders to work toward a living wage for all. For instance, Reagan said that she and other Tompkins County living-wage advocates have contacted Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. about a new store set to open on Route 13 in Ithaca in the next few months. Reagan said she’d like to see Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, pay a living wage and adhere to fair labor practices.

“We want to let them know that we, as a community, care about these issues,” Reagan said. “We want to welcome them into the community in some ways, but we also want to let them know what our expectations are.”

Reagan said she and her colleagues have had limited dialogue with Wal-Mart representatives, and received no guarantees that their requests will be met. Critics have charged that Wal-Mart discourages union activity and discriminates against women.

“This store could set some new standards for the Wal-Mart company. It could be to their benefit to start doing something to change their image,” Reagan remarked.

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