A handful of Spokane activists have a startling proposal to blunt poverty’s sharp teeth: an $8.25 minimum wage.
From its downtown office stocked with pamphlets about Guatemalan freedom fighters and deforestation, the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane is circulating petitions demanding the City Council set base pay at a “living wage.”
It’s ridiculous, they say, for workers toiling all day to be limping along below the poverty line.
On a $5.15 hourly wage, the current state minimum, families still qualify for food stamps, free lunches, a tax credit for the poor and other government subsidies.
“If someone is doing an honest day of work, it should be enough to bring a family above the poverty line,” said Heidi Burbidge, co-director of PJALS. “It seems now that working doesn’t pay off.”
Similar, less dramatic campaigns have spawned living wage ordinances in 15 cities, from New Haven, Conn., to Los Angeles.
Successful campaigns elsewhere have focused on businesses that contract for public dollars. The city of Portland, for example, won’t use companies that pay employees less than $7 an hour.
New Orleans, Houston and other cities are considering measures this fall jacking up minimum wages.
In Spokane, the living wage proposal is supported by social service providers, churches and labor unions.
Analysts agree the current economic health of the city is anemic. Per capita income is lower and poverty rates are higher here than state-wide.
Almost half the workers in the booming service industry - the biggest employer in Spokane - earn less than $14,000 a year.
But even Burbidge admits it’s optimistic to expect a 60 percent boost to the current minimum. She hopes the proposal will rattle the cages of the comfortable and inspire the down-trodden.
“We know people think we are crazy, but we want to raise awareness for what it takes to live on minimum wage, to keep a family together, to keep a family off welfare,” Burbidge said.
The proposal may not be legal. The petition, which PJALS plans to send to the council in November with 3,000 signatures, asks the city to raise the minimum wage to $7 in 1998, $8.25 in 1999.
City Attorney Jim Sloane doubts the council has that authority.
Nevertheless, campaign organizers are pressing ahead.
“Can the profit people do with a little less profit?” asked Dan Jordan, community services director of Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs.
“Can the top people do with a little less to free up some for the bottom? This is a conversation the business community needs to have.”
Cries of “economic justice” prompted a $1.55 boost to the minimum wage through a 1988 statewide initiative. Labor leaders are now considering a new initiative drive.
But blaming minimum-wage levels for poor pay is wrong, said Rodney Fort, a Washington State University economics professor.
A worker is worth only so much to an employer, he said. Forcing business to boost pay will result in layoffs. Those retaining their jobs will be pushed harder. Side benefits, such as free lunches at fast food restaurants, will be gone, Fort predicted.
Workers demanding better pay should instead improve their skills, he said.
“Raising the minimum wage is like putting butter on a burn,” Fort said of the working poor. “It’s going to feel good for a while, but it’s not going to fix the problem.”
Dan Kirschner, public affairs director for the Spokane Chamber of Commerce, applauds the attention to the issue, but said such a big wage hike would cost jobs.
“Our goal is the same: improving the standard of living,” he said. “It would be nice to have them sit down and talk.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PAYDAY At a minimum hourly wage of $5.15, a person working 40 hours a week makes $10,712 annually. A wage of $8.25 an hour would translate into an income of $17,160 a year. The median household income in Spokane County is $34,576 a year.