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Column: Praise doesn’t pay the bills

  • San Jose Mercury News illustration --Sydney Fischer

Published: 7/4/2020 10:20:12 PM
Modified: 7/4/2020 10:20:11 PM

They process our grocery and other purchases. They keep the store shelves stocked. They tend to the health, safety and personal needs of vulnerable individuals in nursing homes, assisted living facilities or via home care. They make home deliveries. They prepare take-out food. They deal with our trash. Mostly when we cannot see them, they clean … and re-clean … and sanitize every surface in every institution or facility or hotel or motel or other space currently in public use. And they do so much more.

They are the low-wage New Hampshire workers in our midst — many of whom now, during a pandemic, carry the label of “essential.” And our health and our safety depend on their dedication and on how well they do their job. And yet, at the end of a pay period of full-time work, these people do not take home enough money to support a family, afford a decent living space, secure dependable transportation or telephone and electronic communications, pay for needed health care, and cover all the other basic bills of life.

Politicians and others have repeatedly lauded these essential workers publicly. But the reality is that even effusively delivered praise does not pay the bills. We need to do more than thank our state’s clearly essential workers who are still relegated to the lowest rungs on New Hampshire’s economic ladder. We need to pay them. We need to pay them a wage that lifts them out of poverty, that removes the dis-ease of constant economic anxiety, that allows them to thrive. This is the compensation they deserve for keeping our safety and health uppermost in their minds as they carry out their essential job responsibilities.

Back in 2011, when one of the most mean-spirited legislative bodies in New Hampshire history managed to wipe the state’s minimum wage statute off the books (despite a gubernatorial veto), the economic cruelty of the majority was in full view for all to see. Now the situation is flipped. The New Hampshire Legislature tried in 2019 and again this year to get a minimum wage back on the books and to move us beyond the $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage now in force. But the governor’s heartlessness in this matter is beyond shameful.

After a gleeful veto of the 2019 minimum wage bill, he claims there is no need for a wage floor to keep New Hampshire’s full-time workers out of poverty because the market will provide.

Except, of course, when it doesn’t.

If the market were working, one job would be enough for every essential worker. If the market were working, all full-time workers would be lifted out of poverty and out of a life of never-ending economic fear and anxiety. If the market were working, a full-time working parent could feed a child and secure a safe place to live without ongoing dependence on social safety nets. If the market were working, essential workers in our retail, food service and hospitality establishments, in our health care and elder care facilities, and in our janitorial services and elsewhere, would not continue to be poor.

In this time of repeated celebration of New Hampshire’s essential workers, it is also time to name the immorality of poverty wages and, likewise, to note that yet another veto of a minimum wage bill would also be immoral. And to the legislators who are trying to do better, we ask you, too, to move beyond being tepid when it comes to righting this policy wrong.

We have profound appreciation for the important efforts inherent in HB 731 and SB 410, this legislative session’s bid to reinstate and raise the New Hampshire minimum wage. But the reality is that $10 an hour in 2021-22 will still be a wage that keeps people poor.

So, here is our urgent plea to legislators who have long wanted to do the right thing, as well as to all those who are experiencing a newfound awareness of the critical role that essential low-wage workers play in the fabric of New Hampshire’s economy: Dare to be bold. Dare to name the hypocrisy of praise without decent pay. Dare to say loudly and repeatedly, “If they’re essential, they deserve to essentially live.” That means living beyond poverty for full-time work.

Gail Kinney is worker justice minister and John Gregory-Davis is co-pastor at the Meriden Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.

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