Seeking to raise county’s minimum wage to over $14 an hour
Michael Blodgett lives in a trailer in Dryden, a Tompkins County town just over 13 miles from the city of Ithaca. Blodgett, 58, shares the home with his wife and daughter, his daughter’s fiance and their 6-month-old baby.
Blodgett, a cleaner in the Trumansburg School District, said he and his wife — who works as a dishwasher at Cornell University — made a combined $48,000 last year, which he said was just barely enough to get by.
“We’re always paycheck to paycheck, we don’t have any savings,” Blodgett said.
Blodgett and his wife’s combined income leaves them in a tough position, as he said they make too much money to qualify for food stamps, but are still reliant on a regular paycheck. This becomes a tenuous position when Cornell is out of session, Blodgett said, as his wife loses her regular source of income.
It is this kind of situation that the Tompkins County Workers’ Center is trying to address when it announced the start of a campaign this summer to increase the minimum wage in Tompkins County to $14.34 an hour, the amount Alternatives Federal Credit Union deemed a living wage in the county for 2015. Living wage is defined as the amount of money needed for a person to meet their basic needs.
Pete Meyers, coordinator at the TCWC, said if the campaign is successful, the increase in the county’s minimum wage would be phased in over five years. Currently, the minimum wage in Tompkins County — and the state of New York as a whole — is $8.75 an hour, although it is set to increase to $9 an hour at the end of the year.
Meyers said the TCWC is first looking to get the Tompkins County legislature to support raising the county’s minimum wage. However, he said that isn’t enough to change the county’s wage level. Unlike cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle that have autonomous control over their wage laws, Meyers said Tompkins County must get approval from the state government. Meyers said while he is sure the State Assembly will be supportive of the campaign, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already proposed raising New York’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, garnering support from the Republican held State Senate will be more of a challenge.
Despite the challenges ahead, Meyers said the campaign to increase minimum wage in the county to $14.34 is starting to gather momentum.
Part of building a local groundswell is getting towns in the county to pass resolutions endorsing the campaign, Meyers said, which the town of Ithaca did in mid August. The resolution is nonbinding and has no lawful impact, but Meyers said it does indicate support for the campaign.
The TCWC is currently working on getting the city of Ithaca to pass a resolution approving of the plan, Meyers said. He said Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, a Democrat and a supporter of the campaign, recently helped the TCWC convince the Tompkins County Democratic Committee to endorse the living wage campaign.
In addition, Meyers said the TCWC also plans to begin having supporters of the campaign testify, possibly in November, before the Tompkins County legislature about the experience of surviving on a low wage. Meyers said he hopes a large number of supporters attend those sessions, including low wage workers involved in the campaign. Blodgett, who currently makes $11.85 an hour, said if minimum wage were raised to reflect living wage in the county, he and his family would have a much better chance of getting by. Blodgett said he is slowly getting involved with the TCWC attempt to raise the minimum wage.
Meyers said the TCWC is also circulating a petition that people in support of the campaign can sign, which as of Sept. 18 had garnered about a 1,000 signatures in three weeks. He said the goal is to get 10,000 signatures.
Shawn Davis, a senior at Ithaca College involved in the campaign through a one-credit independent study, said the support the movement has received thus far is representative of a greater political movement.
“Now is the critical moment, just with the election happening and just with the disillusionment at establishment politics and business as usual,” Davis said.
Davis said while he thinks the living wage campaign could be stronger in the number of individuals actually involved, the campaign has been successful in reaching people.
The TCWC is trying to get the Tompkins County legislature to approve the minimum wage increase by next spring, which Meyers acknowledged will be a challenge.
Opposition to the campaign has come from a couple of places, Meyers said. He said some nonprofit human service agencies are expressing qualms because they fear they won’t have the money for a wage increase. In addition, Meyers said he expects pushback from small businesses and employers of youth workers, who typically pay minimum wage.
Meyers said for this reason, Cornell and Ithaca College could potentially be two of the biggest opponents of a minimum wage increase because they pay so many student workers at current minimum wage.
Beth Blinn, manager of the Student Employment Office at Ithaca College, said because the college is not a living wage employer, a raise to a living wage would not impact the amount students are paid at the college.
“New York state minimum wage is what we require,” Blinn said. “What you’re referring to from the Workers’ Center is definitely different from New York State minimum wage.”
However, Meyers said since the minimum wage increase the TCWC is proposing would apply to all of Tompkins County, students’ wages would be upped if the campaign were successful.
For Blodgett, making a living wage would represent a definite improvement to his situation. With his current wages, Blodgett said he only has enough money for one meal a day — the meal he takes to work with him.
“I just want to be able to survive and pay the bills and have some money for food,” he said.
Evan Popp is a sophomore journalism major who wishes Ithaca College’s tuition was $14.34 — total. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.