By Edmund Ford Jr., Special to The New Tri-State Defender
As another Labor Day weekend comes and goes, I found it appropriate to write this op-ed so that the reader can understand where we are as far as local support in providing living wages for public labor. We are on the right track, but there is work left to be done. This op-ed gives a snapshot on where we are, where we need to go, and what is required to get there.
During my last term as a City Councilman, I pushed for a living wage of $15.50/hour for all City government employees, not just a select few, not taking favorites for one class of employees over another one. What mattered was that these men and women performed services that affect us daily. We may not see it, but I assure you that these employees take pride in what they do. For those reasons, they should earn a living wage.
My research found that nearly 1,000 employees would be affected with the pay increase. These employees included police service technicians, building and grounds maintenance workers, librarians, and many more. In fact, there was one employee with over 46 years for City government experience that was barely making $24,000 a year. That’s a shame. She was one of many employees that was not a member of organized labor who would’ve been her voice for better wages. That’s why I decided to be that voice for her and others by passing legislation, demanding pay equity and tackling poverty.
I knew this work would take time to be done right. It took three months to conduct a full, thorough study. It also required the assistance of Mayor Strickland’s administration and the support of Memphis City Council members. The $15.50/hr legislation passed almost unanimously, including salary increases for all full-time employees, with no property tax increase. The Memphis City Council also approved a resolution to work on elevating salaries for part-time workers, which is still in progress.
During my time on the County Commission, I wanted to ensure that the same effort and time were given to provide living wages to all Shelby County government and Shelby County Schools employees. However, my efforts came with challenges from a few Commissioners and the Shelby County Mayor. With the challenges came my valid concerns. My concerns ranged from lack of inclusion of all employees to lack of research, resulting in poor legislation brought by County Administration that required changes by Commissioners for passage.
For instance, before July 2019, there were over 670 Shelby County employees making less than $15 an hour. Several Commissioners, including myself, wanted to ensure that these salaries were increased with compression costs. As of today, according to recent data and conversation with employees, compression has not been included. For the reader who needs clarity, say that the boss makes $14/hr and the employee makes $11/hr. It is not fair to elevate both to $15/hr; the boss has to make more. That is called compression. Mayor Lee Harris states that this is a “red herring”. I disagree. I call this being responsible, doing the work, and promoting employee morale. Hopefully, compression issues will be resolved before we vote on next year’s budget.
Lastly, for Shelby County Schools, the situation is worse. There are over 3,100 employees that still do not make $15 an hour, many of them required to have a Bachelor’s degree or related experience who are making less than those without a degree. These positions include substitute teachers, educational assistants, certified tutors, campus monitors, clerical personnel, and 700 nutritional services support workers. Until recently, only the latter has been mentioned and no one else. Now since we have the real facts and figures, the scope must now be expanded within the salary study I have requested from the SCS administration to include all undercompensated employees.
Although my passion to do things correct and in order have been criticized by the County Mayor and others, I’ll accept that criticism everyday if my actions ensure a living wage for all…and not the cherry-picked. Scoring political points for a “big win” without real action is actually a “big loss” for the everyday worker and the fight for a living wage.
(Edmund Ford Jr. represents District 9, which includes Southwest Memphis, Westwood, West Junction/Walker Holmes and Whitehaven, on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.)