I’m excited to see that Proposition J, the minimum wage increase for San Francisco, is supported by the majority of people in San Francisco and is likely to pass in November. I’m excited because:
Every week I talk to people who will be affected by this law, and I keep hearing their stories, like what it is like to work for $11.03 per hour, commuting almost two hours each way by bus and BART from Vallejo for a four hour shift, paying $18.60 for transit on a day when your net pay will be less than $35 even after the tax refund you won’t get until next year. I ask these folks why they even choose to do this, day after day, a choice that looks economically irrational to me. I ask this in part because my middle class upbringing tried to brainwash me into believing that economics rules behavior and that poor people are lazy. This is what I hear in response to my question: “Because I want to work,” from someone who recently got out of prison. “Because I believe in what we are doing,” from someone who helps coordinate our Free Meals program. “Because people gave me a second chance with this job, and I want to pay my debt to this community,” from someone who used to sell drugs. “Because I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished here,” from someone who worked in the restaurant industry for years and decided to stop drinking when he started working with us. These are people who could probably be making more money outside of the formal employment system – heck, they could probably make more money panhandling two blocks away. These are people supporting school-age children. But they choose to work, and it’s completely insane to me that we in the Bay Area have allowed people to work for years at below-subsistence wages just because we could, because there is an abundance of labor willing to take a job that barely pays for itself.
Photograph by Lisa Wiseman
I myself used to work in the service industry before coming to GLIDE, in a city about 30 miles south of SF. I started at $8.00 an hour, and two years later I was an assistant manager running the daily retail floor and overseeing the training of over 35 staff – earning $13.90. My employer had policies that were Walmart-like in punishing even a minute of unauthorized overtime but requiring an extensive set of closing responsibilities, tacitly encouraging us to “donate” time to the business by working overtime off-the-clock, and I could not take a regular second job because my schedule got shifted every quarter, I was given random shifts and split weekends that preempted my availability to consistently work outside or have a regular childcare setup (if I had kids, which thankfully for them I don’t.) If you still haven’t had a chance to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, I can tell you it’s even more relevant today, with San Francisco increasingly split into knowledge workers and workers in the service sector.
Right at the top of my list of things to be happy about is the fact that at GLIDE we have decided to increase the wages of our lowest-paid workers ahead of the proposed city ordinance, mostly because we are convinced it’s the right thing to do, but also to step out in front and be a part of the solution here in San Francisco. At GLIDE, we see more and more working folks accessing our Free Meals programs because they can’t pay for both housing and food. That’s not justice to us.
Some history: At GLIDE we had, until this year, pretty much just kept pace with the minimum wage – for SF employers with city contracts, the minimum wage for the last 7 years has been stuck at $11.03/hour. That means that any contracts we have with the city are based on jobs paying $11.03, and if we pay more than that, we are paying from the foundation’s unrestricted funds a.k.a. checks and cash from the individuals and families like you who support us.
In June, however, GLIDE began a conscious effort to move our own folks towards a living wage. In addition to raising the starting minimum to $11.50/hour, we gave substantial bump up (by $1.50-$2.50) to the wages of staff earning less than $20/hour who have been here for three years or more. We used a tiered formula for the increases that financially prioritized our lowest wage staff.
Inside of GLIDE, we believe that it is worth something to have a workforce of people serving the poor who are not themselves compelled to be in financial distress. Our services to the homeless and poor residents of the city will be better for it. We also know our jobs are supporting families. We decided to move ahead of Proposition J and make a statement about our support for living wages for all the city’s workers.
We also made these changes because it’s in our mission to be breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty and dependence, and we can see that paying just the City’s minimum wages could actually be contributing to intergenerational poverty. Low wages also exacerbate the un-affordability of San Francisco’s rental and housing market, and poor people deserve clean, safe local housing as much as anyone – check out GLIDE’s 80 family apartments at 125 Mason St. if you want to see what we think good affordable housing looks like. San Francisco is grounded in the huge range of people who can participate in the public life of this city. When poor people are pushed out, and when the voices of working class artists, communities of color and LGBT runaways are diminished, San Francisco will be at risk of being the kind of straitjacketing, non-accepting monoculture that many of us moved here to escape. We will have brought our own hell with us.
At GLIDE, the joy you see here at Sunday morning Celebrations and the welcome people feel every day of the week in our programs aren’t because we are nice people. It’s because everyone, homeless or housed, movie star or coffee barista, undocumented worker or Mayflower scion – everyone – can have a place at the table here. This level of diversity forces us to get real instead of hiding behind niceness, and the acceptance it takes to make this all work changes the entire social equation.
All of these decisions have an explicit cost, just as they would in a restaurant or other business. Our planned increases will cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next few years. Choosing to implement these raises took grit and careful planning by our executive team. We’re not sure how we’ll pay for these increases, and I’m still not convinced it’s enough. There have been some of us who are worried that we might not be able to sustain the increases, and could eventually have to cut essential service programs in order to keep a balanced budget. If the City’s Proposition J does pass, some relief will come through marginal increases in contracts and grants funding we receive. We think our donors will support our decision to move towards a living wage for all our regular staff, by continuing to support GLIDE’s work through the years. In any case, we are stepping out with the change – it will be better for our staff and ultimately for all the people we serve here in the city. Like I said before, it’s the right thing to do.
Justice starts at home, and I’m proud that GLIDE is always on the path that heads there. In the area of living wages and income inequality, these recent wage increases are a start. May we continue to walk at the front of society’s long arc towards justice.
James B. Lin is the Co-Director of Human Resources and Organizational Integration at GLIDE