Coalition aims to increase number of workplaces that pay ‘living wage’

Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — When Kitty Callaghan started working as a Legal Aid attorney serving the needs of the poor in 1980, most of her clients were unemployed. If they had jobs, they likely didn’t qualify for her services based on income guidelines that put them above the threshold.

That isn’t true anymore.

“Now we have more clients who qualify for Legal Aid who are working,” said Callaghan. Many poor people have jobs, yet they are unable to keep up with basic living expenses.

She sees this all the time in her work specializing in housing law. So when the congregation she attends on Sundays began thinking of ways to address poverty eight years ago, she got the idea of trying to figure out what an individual really needs to earn in an hourly wage to support him or herself. She founded the Northampton Coalition for a Living Wage in 2006 — and by 2009 the group convinced the City Council to unanimously pass a resolution encouraging local employers to meet a standard of compensation above the minimum wage. At the time, based on a calculation of basic expenses for a single adult with no children, they determined that to be $11.90 an hour.

That was based on their assessment of what a single person without children needed to maintain a “decent” standard of living. The figure then was $2,062 a month, $933 of which was for rent and utilities. The rest was for taxes ($356), transportation ($266), food ($236), health care ($132) and other ($139).

The coalition, which has since changed its name to Living Wage Western Mass, has been raising its idea of what a living wage for Northampton and the region is each year by linking it to the Consumer Price Index.

In 2013 they calculated it as $12.78 an hour.

The group, (which can be found at livingwagewesternmass.net), is comprised of 20 member organizations as well as about 200 individuals who believe as a core principal that a living wage is a human right. They also agree to support local employers who voluntarily either pay a living wage or say they aspire to.

“The mission of Living Wage Western Mass is to promote the living wage as an idea,” said Callaghan. Her current projects include creating a decal that employers her organization certifies can display as a way of telling their customers that they support this movement. She is also looking for people earning the minimum wage who are willing to speak publicly about how they manage.

Currently, 30 local employers, including the International Language Institute, Minuteman Pest Control and Rigali & Walder Orthodontics, hold the living wage certification, and six more are moving in that direction.

Richard Zafft, owner of Fly By Night, said his furniture store will display the decal. “We’re not big joiners of stuff, but it’s something we were doing anyway,” he said. His lowest paid employees, he said, “make 14 or 15 bucks an hour.” He said he believes that is something all businesses should strive for.

“I can understand many businesses are so tight that perhaps they don’t have that discretion, but I don’t always believe that as much as people would like you to think that,” said Zafft. “I think that if everyone made more money they’d have more money to spend and our economy would be a lot healthier.”

One measure of how strong a business is, according to Zafft, is how many of its employees own their own home. “When everyone who works with you is eating well and living well then the whole thing is strong and stable,” he said. Fly by Night “is doing pretty well” in that regard, Zafft said: “We’re almost half way there.”

Callaghan argues that it is in a company’s self interest to pay a living wage. “An employer will have better retention and better employees if somebody is earning enough money to make ends meet,” she said. She knows people who have jobs but are still unable to keep up with rent and heating bills. Callaghan said it is hard to find good data on how many people and their families are getting by on incomes below the living wage. What she senses, though, is that their stories are often not heard as part of debates over whether to raise the minimum wage.

“There is a lot of information in the newspapers about the impact minimum wage increases will have on employers,” she said. That is why Living Wage Western Mass is launching a “story project.” Callaghan would like to produce videos and written accounts of real experiences.

“We are trying to get people who are low-wage workers to tell their personal stories,” she said. “What is it like, what are the challenges they have making the minimum wage?”

She invites people to contact her at kcallaghan@livingwagewesternmass.net.