Monday, May 6, 2013

Inherent Worth and Dignity (May 5, 2013)

Chalice Lighting
 In celebration of International Worker's Day
We light our chalice this morning in honor of all the workers of the world
In honor of the workers who tend crops and harvest our food
In honor of the men and women who cut and sew our clothing
In honor of the women and men who built our homes, who built this church
In honor of men and women who built our phones and our call phone towers,  our cars and the roads we drive on
We honor all the women and men who repair all these things when they are broken
We honor the truckers and mail carriers and delivery folk who bring the things we need to this community
We honor the cooks and waiters and dishwashers that prepare our food when we go out to eat
And we honor all the other workers I have not named, could not begin to name
As we remember that daily we co-create this world with billions of other people
to whom we are connected in an "inescapable web of mutuality"

In Ithaca, the town where I live, I am told that there are more restaurants per capita than any place else in the US except Manhattan. We are lucky that so many restaurants near our house are independent locally owned businesses, and many feature local organic produce and local humanely raised pork and beef. If you are a foody and if you care about ethical eating it’s  a great place to live.

Now I worked in restaurants while I was in school- as a bus person, as a waitress.  I worked at fancy places and family restaurants. It’s hard work, that I know. Never was I so physically exhausted at the end of a work day as I was when waiting or bussing tables. But it is good work you can feel proud of. I loved that feeling of rapport with the customers, I loved the food we served. I loved the camaraderie with my fellow servers were some of the most fun co-workers I’ve ever had. I even got good at carrying plates on my arms, or on one of those huge trays on my shoulder.  I didn’t love working a 7 hour shift with no breaks, and I didn’t love the days when the restaurant sat empty while we refilled salt shakers or wiped down the wait station with no customers to wait on, and no tips to help pay the bills, and I’m glad I didn’t have to support a family on my tips But the Restaurant industry is one of the largest growing in the country, and it is work 10 million  Americans are proud, as I was, to call their own. 

I was surprised to find out that the so called “tipped minimum wage” has not changed since I was waiting tables- it is still $2.13 an hour[i] nationally (Pennsylvania is $2.83)  I have to tell you it’s been 20 years since I waited tables, and I was shocked to find that waiters In most states today made the same wage I did 20 years ago. It turns out that the minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage rose together until 1996 when Herman Cain, then the head of the National Restaurant Association, struck a deal with Congress to de-link the two — the minimum wage will continue to rise, but the minimum wage for tipped workers will be frozen. Now in theory, if you don’t make at least the minimum wage in tips, your boss is supposed to pay the rest so you are making at least minimum wage- and some bosses do, and some don’t.  The law also requires that  wait staff is taxed based on 15% of their sales. Which means that if someone forgets to leave a tip, or chooses not to lave a tip, you still get taxed on 15% of their meal. Those taxes are taken out of your paycheck, as they are for most folks, so most wait staff get a  paycheck of $0, with a paystub detailing which taxes were withheld. 

It is a common misconception, I think, that waiting tables is a lucrative profession. You look out over the dinner rush as you calculate your tip, and you think, geeze- if my waitress gets this same tip from everyone seated here she’s going to make a ton of money. What you don’t see is everything that goes into that tip. You don’t see the hours a waiter or waitress spends before the restaurant opens polishing silver and filling salt shakers. You don’t see the wait staff waiting anxiously as the early customers trickle in- hoping their tables will be filled more than once that night. You don’t see the waiter stuck at work as he waits for that last table to finish up- the table that hasn’t ordered anything in an hour, but is enjoying each other’s company. All the waiter can do is, well, wait for them to move on so he can clear their table and re-set it for the next day. You don’t see that in restaurants where there are bus people, they also make $2.13 an hour, and so when I worked at such restaurants the waiter must take part of his or her tips and give it to the bus people, and give part to the bar tender- it’s called “tipping out”. I’ve also been the bus person who has seen the tips left on the tables and knows that what the waiter is handing me is not the full percentage of their tips.

You also don’t see that the Friday and Saturday night dinner shifts go to the most senior staff. Waters and bus staff start on Mondays, or the other less popular shifts. A Restaurant Opportunity Center study showed that only 20% of restaurant workers make a living wage, and those are mostly in fine dining restaurants[i]. (p. 141) So, yes, if you work at a fine dining restaurant in NYC and get the Friday and Saturday night shifts, you can make a decent living. But I think for too long we have let the image of the tuxedoed waiter rolling in tips keep us from making sure the waitress at the local pancake house can also earn enough to feed her family. In fact within the restaurant industry are 7 of the 10 lowest paying jobs (p. 71) as are the 2 lowest paid jobs in U.S. are in the restaurant industry (p. 101). Restaurant workers rely on Food stamps are double rate of rest of the work force, and their poverty rate is triple the rate.

So what does this have to do with Inherent Worth and Dignity? I would like to propose the radical idea that Affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person needs to go beyond our good thoughts about our brothers and sisters, beyond treating our neighbors kindly, to creating a society where all our brothers and sisters can live in dignity. I propose that we could best affirm the worth and dignity of all honest hard work through a living wage. Right now the minimum wage in this country, in this state, is not a living wage. And what do I mean by that? A living wage is defined as the amount of money that a person needs to earn to put a roof over her head, food on her table, to go to a doctor when she is sick. I also heard a republican legislator say recently that this country was built on people saving up their money and starting their own businesses. Well, if we believe that is important, then we should pay our workers enough that they can put away a little bit for a rainy day, for their retirement, or even to become their own boss someday.  That is what we mean by a living wage. [ii] A living wage means that anyone who works full time should not need public assistance to survive. Of course what it costs  to live in Manhattan is different than what it costs to live in Bradford County. In Tompkins county, where I live, the living wage as determined just this past Friday is now $26,242.21 a year or $12.62 per hour.

The restaurant industry is just one industry where it is common practice to pay people less than what they need to live on. It is so common that we don’t often take time to think about – it is invisible to any of us who are paid enough to live on. It is so deeply embedded in our assumption about the world that we are afraid of what any change to this norm will mean. But there are enough examples to show that something more just is possible. For example in seven states, the tipped minimum wage is now re-joined with the regular minimum wage and all of these states continue to have growing restaurant industries.

I wonder if what is happening here is what my old theology professor used to call a “Language event”? In an age where the Supreme court confirms that Corporations are people, but the workers of the world are called   "labor costs" that need to be “minimized.” As long as we think of the people who bus our tables, wash our dishes, and make our phones as "labor costs" that must be "minimized" we are stripping them of their inherent worth and dignity. 

When we explain why we can’t pay employees enough to meet their basic human needs, we hear a lot about market forces. But as near as I can tell, the market does not take care of people who make things. We cannot leave that to "the market" because it is the explicit job of the “market”  to "minimize costs." The lives of human beings are not a cost. They are a blessing. Each and every one has worth.

No it is not the job of the market to make sure that each and every person on this planet is afforded dignity, and that we honor their worth as human beings.  Such Ethical concerns fall to people of conscience like us.  I am not aware of any religious tradition the world over who hold as their highest principle “maximizing shareholder value” or “minimizing labor costs.”  And you will not find either among the Principles and Purpose that join Unitarian Universalists in a common purpose. I know these are powerful ideas in our culture right now, almost like a sacred cow we must refrain from harming, but the mission of this congregation is to encourage spiritual growth and ethical living. I propose the radical notion that whether  our brothers and sisters who put food on our tables can themselves afford to feed their families is not something we should consider “if market forces allow.” It is a fundamental ethical principle that we must bring to every decision we make as a country, as a community.

When you hear about market forces, remember that YOU are a market force. The market has no inner ethical compass except for yours. Not everyone knows that tips are not a bonus for extra good work, but are rent money, grocery money. Not everyone knows that the IRS assumes you tipped your server %15. But the next time you are eating out with friends, and dividing up the check, have a conversation about how the tipping system really works. The next time you are eating out- get curious. Do you know which restaurants offer their employees something better than the $2.83 per hour required by law here in Pennsylvania? Do you know which restaurants have a history of making their employees clock out before they are done working, or taking a portion of their employees tips? As UUs concerned about ethical eating, we have gotten curious about whether the greens are local, or the beef grass fed. Let’s start getting curious about which restaurants offer paid sick days and promote from within. Let’s get curious about which restaurants honor the inherent worth and dignity of their employees. And then let’s be a market force- let’s support the restaurants that are ethical leaders.

These restaurants need our support in Washington[iii] and Harrisburg as well. Owning a restaurant, especially a small local restaurant, is challenging. Owners who want to pay a living wage to their staff really have to work hard and get creative to compete with all the restaurants who pay only $2.13 an hour. And it would really help level the playing field if we encouraged our legislators to re-connect the tipped minimum wage to the regular minimum wage- one bill that has recently been through congress, but was defeated, would have set the tipped minimum wage at %70 of the federal minimum wage so that whenever the minimum wage goes up with inflation our waiters and bussers would see their wages go up too. I know  there is a myth out there that that if the minimum wage is raised, food will become so expensive that none of us will be able to afford to eat out any more. The proposed Fair Minimum Wage Act, introduced in 2012 by Representative George Miller (D-CA) in the House and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) in the Senate would have raised the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.80 per hour over the next 3 years and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to 70% of the regular minimum wage.  Studies show that the actual impact on American families would be only about $.10 per day over 3 years.[iv] Wouldn’t you pay $.10 a day to raise many Americans out of poverty, to reduce the need of working people to subsidize their wages with food stamps? I would. 

We are a people who affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Those words are beautiful and inspiring, but challenging too. To promote the worth and dignity of every person we must go beyond the respect for one another that we hold in our hearts, that we aspire to live out in our day to day interactions with our brother and sisters, we must also create a world where each person who works receives a wage that allows them food and shelter and medical care, without which dignity is hard to come by. Be they restaurant workers, farm workers, or garment industry workers- we are called to stand by every worker until each can live in dignity.

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