Valuing Workers by Paying a Fair Wage
This post was originally published on the U.S. Department of Labor’s blog, Work in Progress, on September 17.
I had the great honor of joining a small group of faith leaders to meet with Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to discuss issues facing low-wage workers. It was a profoundly moving experience for me, not only because of the great diversity of clergy — Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Evangelical Christian, and Jewish — but because it came during the Hebrew month of Elul, roughly one week before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In the Jewish tradition, this is a time of deep reflection and introspection — of examining our deeds and considering the ways we need to change in order to put ourselves back on a path that is in line with our deepest values.
The Jewish tradition is very clear that confronting the challenges of poverty is not simply a personal but also a communal obligation. The preeminent Jewish scholar Maimonides taught that the highest level of charitable giving is to provide for employment so that a person may become self-sufficient. Even in the Middle Ages, it was inconceivable for a person to work full time, while still requiring public assistance. Sadly, that unfortunate situation is the reality for far too many Americans.
Americans work hard and they deserve to have the dignity of economic self-sufficiency. Our belief in that fundamental dignity underscores my organization’s push to raise the minimum wage above poverty levels. We’ve been part of successful efforts in Maryland, Minnesota and the District of Columbia, and are pushing for more increases at the state and local level. But that’s not enough. We must raise the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 so that low-wage workers everywhere will benefit.
A staggering number of American adults rely on minimum wage jobs to support themselves and their families and yet, even working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, an employee earns just $15,080 a year—not nearly enough money to pay for food, housing and other necessities. I have seen firsthand the positive impact that fair wage increases have on employees’ ability to sustain their families, as well as on businesses and the overall health of our economy. All Americans, not just those lucky enough to live in states which have already seen the benefit of raising the minimum wage, should have the opportunity to earn fair wages for their work. Raising the minimum wage will go a long way not only toward reducing poverty and enabling full-time workers to make ends meet, but to providing the building blocks of a more vibrant and equitable economy that honors the dignity of people in all walks of life.
Secretary Perez echoed Jewish tradition when he shared with us his perspective on, “seeing workers not as a commodity to be exploited, but as people to be valued.” Together, people of all faiths, are working to fight against poverty and help America live up to highest ideals and values.