Pay it forward

Paying its workers a living wage wouldn't cost Orange County a lot. Just $3 million, or 0.22 percent of its annual budget, would ensure that no employee of either the county or a county contractor earns poverty-level wages. Nonetheless, getting county leaders to ante up won't be easy for the Living Wage Coalition.

Less than a year into their campaign ["The Wages of Poverty," July 26, 2001], the activists have completed most of their research and are preparing to lobby county commissioners in what they expect to be a bitter political fight. Before Sept. 11, the battle was tough enough. Since then, the community has been in the throes of a deepening recession, with major employers letting go thousands of workers.

"There is a kind of distraction effect," says Eric Shutz, an economics professor at Rollins College, who has led the coalition's research. "People get distracted from other social issues."

To the 75 activists gathered at Rollins Saturday for the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice's "Common Ground" conference, that is indeed reality. While the hodgepodge of aging hippies and younger anarchists railed against the war and President Bush's domestic agenda, the participants realize that neither the mass media nor mainstream politicians are taking them seriously right now.

"We all have to accept that Sept. 11 constituted a huge setback for social- change efforts," said conference keynote speaker and two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Kathy Kelly. Her organization, Voices in the Wilderness, has led more than 40 delegations into war-torn Iraq since the Gulf War. "[The terrorism] gave the current administration a blank check. It's key for the activist community not to lose ground on civil liberties. Now is the time to be clear."

The underlying theme of the conference -- which featured lectures on topics such as academic freedom, environmental activism, civil liberties, student organizing, weapons in space, the war on terror, United Nations' sanctions on Iraq, the Colombian civil war and the living-wage movement -- was where to go from here, at a time when Dubya is "cool" and dissidents aren't.

"Activists need to be respectful of people's concerns about Sept. 11," Shutz says. "On the other hand, they can not be intimidated into giving up their causes. War is not going to change the need for redressing [issues such as] income deficiencies."

Shutz sees recent events as both a blessing and curse to the living-wage movement. Certainly, employers are loathe to raise wages during high unemployment. Then again, Orange County "is a government employer," he says. "You would hope that the government would feel more concerned about the disadvantaged."

The $3 million it would cost the county to offer a living wage takes into account not only pay raises, but also payroll and Social Security taxes, health insurance and the "ripple effect": If you give bottom-rung employees a raise, you also have to adjust salaries for those above them.

The coalition's research included the county's 942 full and part-time workers who earn less than $8.48 an hour (which is the coalition's standard for a living wage, plus about $2 in benefits) as well as the estimated 274 employees of county contractors working for poverty-level wages.

While it wouldn't affect the tourism industry -- or the rest of Orange County's private sector, in which 40 percent of workers make less than $10 an hour -- the living wage may actually save taxpayers money by improving productivity. It would, after all, increase competition for county jobs and make keeping one's job with the county a higher priority.


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