By Frank Goldsmith, Member Steering Committee, CJJ West
Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates. Give him his wages in the daytime, and do not let the sun set on them, for he is poor, and his life depends on them . . .
— Deuteronomy 24:14-15
Rabbinic commentary interprets the phrase “his life depends on them” as meaning that anyone who denies a worker his wages “it is as though he takes his life from him.” (Bava Metzia 112a.)
The corollary to these teachings is that if a worker’s life depends upon her wages, then those wages must be sufficient to sustain life. Yet we know that in contemporary America, that is not the reality. We have enacted laws that require payment of a minimum wage, but those wages are insufficient to sustain life without outside assistance. They are not living wages.
The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. A fulltime worker who is paid only the minimum wage earns $15,072.00 annually before taxes. That is lower than the federal poverty line for a family of two. The Asheville-based nonprofit Just Economics has calculated that a true living wage for Asheville is $12.50 per hour without employer provided health insurance, or $11.00 with insurance. This amounts to $26,000 per year without benefits, or $22,880 with benefits.
The situation is even worse for workers in the food industry, from farm to restaurant table. If you do nothing else after reading this column, please watch this video that starkly illustrates the behind-the-scenes injustice even at upscale restaurants. The minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13 per hour, provided the tips are enough to meet the $7.25 minimum wage. When a subminimum wage was enacted in 1966, it represented about half of the minimum wage; now a worker must make up in tips two-thirds of her hourly pay to reach the minimum wage. The regulation is difficult to enforce and leads to wage theft by employers. One in three waiters and waitresses in North Carolina earns at or below the federal poverty level. Seventy-eight percent of these workers are women. And as the video illustrates, the rest of the kitchen staff does not generally share in the tips. Restaurant workers are organizing against these injustices; visit http://rocunited.org to learn more.
It’s even worse for the workers who harvest the food that the wait staff brings to your table. American labor laws largely exempt growers from having to pay minimum wage to farmworkers. Accordingly, workers who pick tomatoes, for example, are paid by the pound, not by the hour: $0.50 for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked in backbreaking labor, yielding an average annual income of about $10,000, well below the minimum wage. This injustice is the subject of a campaign by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, whose representatives recently visited North Carolina synagogues in Asheville and Raleigh. (Incidentally, you, the consumer, would pay the grocer $75-$80 for those 32 pounds of tomatoes.
So what can you, the individual Jew concerned about social justice, do? Here are some steps you can take:
- Arm yourself with the facts. Visit the websites mentioned in this column to learn more.
- Vote with your shopping dollars: visit the Just Economics website, http://justeconomicswnc.org, to learn which local businesses pay a living wage (both Congregation Beth Israel and Congregation Beth HaTephila in Asheville are certified living wage employers), and to learn why paying a living wage makes good business sense.
- Write or call management of the grocery chains at which you shop and ask them if they have joined the program of the Alliance for Fair Food (http://www.allianceforfairfood.org) to pay tomato workers fairly (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Fresh Market, and even Wal-Mart have joined the program; Publix has not; other grocery chains may not yet have been approached).
- Advocate for legislation increasing the minimum wage and the subminimum tipped employees’ wage.
- Tip generously when you dine out; your server counts on it.
Our Sages stipulated that workers must be compensated sufficiently to at least cover their most basic needs (Bava Metzia 87a). Maimonides codified that a business may not profit at the expense of its workers and customers (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Thievery 8:20). It is no less incumbent upon modern Jews to seek fair payment for the labor of all.