March 28, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld
Hudson Valley, New York – While many students are on spring break this week, there are some others who have joined labor leaders and elected officials in Sullivan, Ulster, Duchess and Orange counties in accepting the “Minimum Wage Challenge.” That challenge is to live for five days, a typical work week, as though they earn our current minimum wage in New York State, which is $9.00 an hour. After doing so, they will share their experiences on social media with the hashtag #HVneeeds15.
One might not necessarily associate college students with this issue, but a recent study by the the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that a growing number of millennials are stuck in minimum wage jobs, and nearly 10% of them have already completed their baccalaureate. That fact certainly runs counter to the widely held belief that one of the sure fire methods of escaping from poverty is to
obtain an education. SUNY Purchase student, Bridget Soto expressed both her anxiety and her willingness to do something about it : “As a student who is graduating from College in May, I worry every day if I will have a good paying job. Many students are not as fortunate as I and won't be obtaining a degree. I accept this challenge for the young people. They deserve a minimum wage that is fair and gives them hope for their future.”
Another of the 20 participants is Beth Soto, Executive Director for the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation. She is also the organizer of this challenge and committed to drawing attention to the fact 281,000 workers in the Hudson Valley are currently trying to subsist on minimum wage salaries and the “fight for 15” is a lot more than just a slogan to them. She explained the formula for the challenge. Using median wage and price indices and excluding your costs for housing and car payments one is left with $97.00/week on which to survive. That paltry sum needs to cover the costs of food and commuting for an entire work week. Ms. Soto crystallizes the issue nicely when she states, “ No one who works hard should live in poverty.” That seems to be a cry, around which, most of us can rally.
It certainly caught the attention of CWA Local 1120 member, Rob Pinto. He doesn’t take the situation lightly either, and clearly expresses his empathy for those who go without. “For the next week I will be trying to support a family of four on basically the cost of a pizza a day; It’s a 5-day challenge for me, but unfortunately a way of life for far too many. We need to make a change.”
County legislators as well as city and town council members from all across the Hudson Valley have joined in this effort. For example, Dutchess County Legislator, Joel Tyner, who started taking the challenge last week. He too put the issue into terms that resonate with most people who go to work every day in order to support a family when he stated, ”No one working forty hours a week should be living in poverty, and forcing parents today to each work two or three jobs to just barely make ends meet for their families makes strong relationships with their children almost impossible.”
If anyone be tempted to write off such rhetoric as simple vote chasing, union organizing or bleeding heart whining, they would quickly be disabused of such a notion after a brief conversation with small businessman Mr. George Nikoladas. He too has taken the challenge. He operates a family owned diner in Monticello, NY., and practices what he preaches by paying his own kitchen staff well above the minimum wage.
His personal brand of entrepreneurship and respect for personal responsibility is difficult to find fault with. His economic views are straightforward. In the best defense of Keynesian economics I have ever heard, Mr. Nikoladas told me in a telephone interview that “nothing trickles down except misery.” Many of his neighbors are Walmart employees, he explained, and if they earned higher wages they could pump more of it back into small businesses in the community, including his diner. But, it isn’t all about money. “Raising the Minimum Wage is about the American Dream of respecting and rewarding hard work,” he says.
In addition to being a small business owner, Mr. Nikoladas is also a newly elected Trustee in Monticello. One his first orders of business he says, is to make certain that all town employees are receiving a living wage. He feels confident that the other three trustees and the mayor are in agreement with him on that. He left me with a somber thought: “Anyone working forty hours a week should not have to
choose between buying medicine and making a car payment.” It’s difficult to argue with the logic inherent in that.
For more information on the “The Challenge” as well as a full list of participants, go to: www.1199seiu.org/MinWageChallenge