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Working their way up

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In a recession that won't say die, words like "underemployed" and "underpaid" take on a life of their own.

            They also consume some people's lives.

            City resident Brent James knows this.

            A single parent, he works two part-time jobs; each pays around $6 an hour, he says. One of these jobs is in food services at an affluent suburban school. But the affluence doesn't pump up James's paycheck or lifestyle. "I don't even have health care," he says. "I use public transportation. I can barely pay my rent and utilities bills to keep a roof over my head." His says his paycheck from the school is growing slightly. "They gave me a 20-cent raise."

            Palmyra native Katie Russell knows the score, too.

            The SUNY Geneseo sociology major says she holds down two campus jobs, one at the current minimum wage ($5.15 an hour) and another at $6 an hour. She works just six hours a week during the term, she says, but she has to make hay during the summer. A recent summer job gave her 50 to 60 hours a week at $7 an hour, she says. But summer earnings stretch pretty thin over the school year.

            "I come from a single-parent family," says Russell, whose brother is just entering grad school. "It's tough. I don't want to ask my mom for money." She muses about some Geneseo students who have to work 30 hours a week at a near-minimum wage.

            Farmworker Conchita Solis has her own perspective.

            "I work on a farm in Monroe County," she says, through translator Bill Abom, head of the Brockport-based Rural and Migrant Ministry. "I'm the mother of three children. I'm paid $6 an hour. I earn [up to] $230 a week." She takes advantage of a day-care center, she says, but it doesn't cover all her hours. "I have to pay someone extra to take care of my children till I come from work."

It's not hard to imagine that these three lives would be easier if the wage-scale went up. ("Once I get to a $10-an-hour job, I'll be satisfied," says James.)

            But James, Russell, and Solis, aren't just dreaming about this. They've signed onto an effort to raise New York State's minimum wage.

            The effort, the "$5.15 Is Not Enough" campaign, is being run by nine statewide groups, including Citizen Action, the Fiscal Policy Institute, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), and the Working Families Party. Among the more than 60 endorsers are local groups like the Rural and Migrant Ministry, the Rochester and Genesee Valley Area Labor Federation, Metro Justice, FoodLink, and Action for a Better Community.

            The campaign's key organizing tool is a brand-new report --- and call to action --- from the Albany-based Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI). Raising the Minimum Wage in New York assembles a great deal of data about low-wage workers. But it also makes a political point: raising the minimum to around $7 an hour in several stages would have no bad effects on the state labor market. The raise, says the report, would cut job turnover, a huge expense for businesses. And it actually would improve the economy by, among other things, putting more spending money in low-wage workers' pockets.

            The case can be made on simple fairness, of course --- the old principle of "a fair day's pay for a fair day's work."

            And no documentation is needed to show $5.15 doesn't go far these days.

            Still, it's interesting to gauge how far the minimum wage has dropped over the years. In 1970, says the report, the federal and state minimum was $1.85, which translates to $8.83 in 2003 dollars. That was New York's all-time high.

            It's revealing how many people are directly affected, too. When the media track the effects of the minimum wage, they usually single out a few job classifications --- as we admittedly have done ourselves. Food service, farm labor, student employment: These are well-known minimum-wage "ghettoes." But the FPI report has a long list of occupations in which at least a quarter of all jobholders get under $7 an hour. The occupations include cashiers, service-station attendants, barbers, retail salespeople, funeral attendants, library assistants, and film projectionists.

            All in all, low-wage workers account for almost nine percent of the state workforce of 7.8 million. But that number is a little skewed. As the report says, the state workforce data leave out self-employed persons and "those earning above $142 per hour." That's right: no decimal point in that figure.

            The report concludes: "In addition to having the widest-in-the-nation gap between the rich and the poor, New York has the dubious distinction of having the greatest disparity between its average wage and the earnings of a full-time minimum-wage worker."

            Simple justice argues for narrowing that gap.

            (To see the full report, visit www.fiscalpolicy.org.)

A postscript for Rochesterians more worried about jobs than about pay rates.

            It pays to worry: The Kodak layoffs will soon put thousands more in the unemployment line, at least temporarily. Benefits of up to $405 a week will keep workers and families from losing their homes and hopes --- not to mention their minds. The typical unemployment check will be a lot smaller than the old paycheck, though.

            Which brings up an uncomfortable question. If $405 is a sacrifice while you're unemployed --- and it definitely is for many people --- just how bad is $206, a week's pay for a full-time minimum-wage worker? And that's assuming this full-timer actually gets 40 hours a week.

            But what happens to the minimum-wage worker who gets laid off and collects unemployment?

            According to a formula on the state Department of Labor website, if you made $3,575 or less during your "high quarter," you get one twenty-fifth of what you made during those 13 weeks. So if you were slogging along at a steady $206 per week, your weekly unemployment benefit will be $107.12.

            And that's definitely with a decimal point.

            But of course you can fall back on the savings you amassed while riding high at $5.15.

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