In Canton, Glens Falls, Watertown or Saranac Lake, what’s a fair wage?

"I'm working." Photo: Akane Yamada, some rights reserved.

Couldn’t resist this one: “I’m working.” Photo: Akane Yamada, some rights reserved.

News flash out of Seattle: the minimum wage has just been raised to $15/hour, by far the highest in the country. Indeed, it’s double or more the rate in Arkansas ($6.25) and about half the states,  almost triple the rate in Georgia and Wyoming ($5.15), and five states (including Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana) have no minimum wage guidelines.

Here’s a summary provided at the website of the National Council of State Legislatures as of May 2014:

  • 38 states have considered minimum wage bills during the 2014 session; 34 states are considering increases to the state minimum wage.
  • Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, West Virginia and D.C. have enacted increases so far in 2014.
  • As of May 28, the legislature in Vermont passed an increase but the bill is awaiting action by the Vermont governor.
  • As of June 1, 22 states and D.C. have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage.
  • 19 states, Guam, and the Virgin Islands have minimum wages the same as the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
  • 4 states, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico have minimum wages below the federal minimum wage (the federal minimum thus applies).
  • 1 state, New Hampshire, repealed their state minimum wage in 2011, but left the reference to the federal minimum wage.
  • 5 states have not established a state minimum wage.
Minimum wage rates

Minimum wage rates

New York State has passed legislation that raised the minimum wage to $8.00/hour beginning December 31, 2013; going up to $8.75 December 31, 2014 and to $9.00 December 31, 2015. As of this spring New York City was considering raising the city’s rate to $15/hour. Also under consideration, a recommendation to increase the statewide minimum wage to $10.10/hour, leapfrogging over the current legislation. This proposal would permit localities to raise the minimum to as much as 30% more than the state minimum.

Obviously, Old Forge and Newcomb, Burlington and Plattsburgh are not Seattle…or New York City. With no local minimum wage guidelines, communities default to the state rate.

What’s fair? In the north country, should farm labor enjoy the benefits of a higher minimum wage? How about waiters and bartenders? When I was a teenager, my first waitressing job paid $.85/hour because the assumption was that tips would fill in enough to give me a reasonable wage. Below minimum rates are still often the case for workers who rely on gratuities.

Why a minimum wage? Some argue that we need a “living wage” rather than a minimum wage which can be too low to pay basic living expenses.

The notion of a living wage is much more controversial than the minimum wage. Even the Wikipedia page on living wage is filled with disagreement about the concept. But you get the idea: a living wage is conceived as a way to address the insufficiency of minimum wages to sustain a working family.

That’s the concept. You may or may not agree. Living wage? Robust minimum wage? No government legislation or even guidelines? Where do you stand on this one?

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16 Comments on “In Canton, Glens Falls, Watertown or Saranac Lake, what’s a fair wage?”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Maybe we should lower the minimum wage to 55 cents an hour so all the illegals will move back south of the border to reap the benefits of Mexico’s 58 cents an hour.
    But seriously, if the federal government got out of the minimum wage business and it fell to the states to decide what the minimum would be if any, it might be fun to watch businesses move to states with low or zero minimum wages while workers fled states with low or zero minimum wages.

  2. Terence says:

    Not to be preachy about your idea, Pete, of sitting back and watching people and businesses exchange one set of states for another, but most minimum-wage workers don’t have the money to up sticks and move their families across the country.

    The North Country has low wages and a lot of hidden costs: maintaining and heating old houses, commuting long distances to work and shopping — even groceries are more expensive! I’m not sure what the answer is: I just know that if lots of people are on subsistence wages, some businesses will exploit them and others won’t move there in the first place because the culture isn’t right for their services.

  3. Michael Greer says:

    The minimum wage for St Lawrence County should be at least $12 per hour, and probably more like $15. An employer can’t expect their employees to get to work if they can’t afford to buy, maintain, fuel, and insure a car, and there is nothing more useless than an employee with car trouble.
    Beyond that, a worker with a car, making $10 per hour has to live under a bridge somewhere, or in his mom”s garage. If we want the North Country to be a better place…If we want our kids to stay here…we’re going to have to pay them well enough to get their attention.

  4. Michael Greer says:

    Is Mexico’s minimum wage really 58 cents?? This has to create a brain-drain effect, or at least deprive the country of all workers with a spine. Even Pete would pay $1 per hour to get his lawn mowed and garage painted.

  5. Reality says:

    Recently I had a friend in Potsdam who was working taking care of the disabled for about $8.50 an hour. It is a common job for the working poor in our area. He commonly worked 50-60 hours a week to get by, and was fine doing this. Then he had a heart issue where he spent three days in the hospital, and the crap health insurance he had left him with a $3,500 bill. When you make less than $20,000 per year, a bill like that can end you financially.

    This was it for him, he quit his job, and wormed his way onto disability. I very much understand that we need reform of the way disability is done in the North Country, but part of that solution is to make work worthwhile.

    As the anthropologist David Graeber says, we have reached a point in our society where the more your work actually benefits others, the less you are paid for it.

    “Suddenly it became possible to see that if there’s a rule, it’s that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you’re paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people’s lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded.”

  6. Fix Disability says:

    The biggest thing we need to do is reward people for working. That seems to be the part of the equation that Republicans miss. I know people who work for a little over $8 an hour, and basically they have to work 50 hours a week to take home less than $20K per year. Getting yourself on disability, where you don’t have to work at all to make just slightly less than this looks pretty freaking good if you make $8 an hour.

    We have a societal problem that jobs that are actually important, and actually help people are paid very little, and jobs that help nobody are paid very well.

    From the Anthropologist David Gaeber: “Suddenly it became possible to see that if there’s a rule, it’s that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you’re paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people’s lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded. “

  7. Pete Klein says:

    I think what this discussion is proving is how expensive it is to be poor in this country.
    When I was a kid, the minimum wage was 50 cents an hour and if you were making more than $100 per week, you were solidly middle class. But that was when a newly built house cost about $8,000 and a new Chevy or a Ford went for about $2,500.
    My apartment in Manhattan back in 1966 cost $45 a month.
    The point is, wages for many have not kept up with the cost of living.
    The American Dream has basically become the American Nightmare.

  8. Mervel says:

    At $7.25 the minimum wage is below what most lower wage jobs already pay. As pointed out above basic CNA work will pay $8-$9 per hour.

    I think the point of a minimum wage is to prevent gross exploitation of vulnerable people, vulnerable workers.

    From that perspective I think a fair minimum wage in the North Country would be between $9 and $10 per hour. This is still low and still hard to live on, however two people could do it.

    The other issue is though that your cash wage is not your compensation. I would rather make $8.00 per hour with full health care, paid sick and vacation leave and so forth rather than $10.00 with nothing as far as benefits go. Many people in the North Country don’t even get sick time, they get sick they don’t get paid.

    You also have the whole underground cash/ wage economy operating here which is larger than most people want to admit.

    Both sides of the debate need to get real though. The fact is you will cause some people to lose their jobs if you hike the wage to $10.00 per hour, however many others will keep their jobs and have a higher yearly wage. I think it is a good trade off. I mean if you can only afford to pay $7.25 with no benefits, maybe you should rethink being in business at all.

  9. seszoo says:

    To survive you need a full time job at 12 an hr with some kind of benefits. St. Lawrence Cty is so spread out it’s impossible for people to be able to afford a decent vehicle to get to work , Where we are, it’s about an equal distance to Massena or Potsdam or Malone , 25 miles each way or so , Talking about 125 to 150 miles a week alone just to get to a job in one of those towns , At 12 an hr your not going to be able to pay for too good of a gas mileage car that won’t break down on you , So where does the younger families find the jobs, We need some good paying jobs to get people away from the govt handouts and stores and fast food won’t do that. NYS is promoteing all these start up tech jobs in tax free zones but we need something for the rest of our population otherwise it’ll stay an area of disability and food stampers ,just because people will do what they have to ,to survive .

  10. Mervel says:

    NYS does not do well for blue collar workers I think that is true. If you desire a regular good paying job with benefits; that means a prison job in the North County today. There is some construction around, etc, but its not plentiful.

    If you have two people each making $9.00 an hour you have a household income of $37,440, now that is doable if you both work full time and one of you has benefits. Its not easy, but it is doable. But much lower than that it is very hard.

    Now the impossible situation; the part that causes poverty, is one person with dependent children trying to survive on $9.00 or less.

  11. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    This is like Climate Change; everyone who is still attached to reality understands that a higher minimum wage will benefit workers, the economy in general, and help local, state, and federal government to balance their books because fewer people will need government assistance and more people will be paying taxes in to the system. A small number of vocal naysayers funded by extremely wealthy individuals are subverting the will of the thoughtful majority.

  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    McDonald’s CEO: ‘We Will Support’ A Minimum Wage Hike

  13. Ellen Rocco says:

    This has been a solid conversation. Great to follow. Thanks to all.

  14. Pete Klein says:

    Many have pointed out how many low wage people survive by having two (usually husband and wife) low wage incomes.
    But this points out one of the cruelest rip offs that began taking place in the 70’s.
    We all celebrated when women started getting jobs previously denied to them. That was a victory until good paying jobs for men who formerly were able to take care of the family while the wife stayed at home to take care of the kids began to disappear.
    When that happened, the advantage of having both the husband and the wife bringing in pay checks was soon lost. This created a situation where the loss of one pay check could easily put the family in the poor house.
    Two incomes are fine if both husband and wife are making enough money to take care of the family even if one were to stop working for whatever reason. But when two incomes are needed to survive, you are only one sickness or loss of a job away from financial ruin.

  15. mervel says:

    That is correct Pete. Wages in general for the middle or the lower middle income brackets have fallen across the board particularly in the North Country which used to be part of the industrial belt of the north.

    So now most families do need two people working to make it. But as you say one sickness, one layoff, etc. and your family is in trouble. The bigger problem is when a family only has one adult trying to support a family of three or four. It really is hard to almost impossible. Most people on government assistance are children.

  16. mervel says:

    Raising the minimum wage will help, but it won’t solve the core issue, which is a vibrant economy producing a lot of well paying jobs with benefits. I would rather see government policy focusing on creating those industries.

    We are in the middle of an oil boom in this nation right now, that boom is very good for blue collar workers in states which have embraced it. We will see what happens in NYS, but I don’t see us ever embracing the energy sector, which really is the future of US manufacturing.

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