There is much discussion and effort being expended by both proponents and opponents of the living wage ordinance. Past and present news articles demonstrate how contentious, emotional and complicated the issue has become.
It seems the desire is to help families with minimum-wage incomes. To solve the problem, we must recognize workers are relegated to minimum- and lower-wage scales because they lack the skills to perform in higher-wage-scale positions and careers. A living wage does not boost one's self-esteem or financial security. Marketable skills and jobs with a future do! Thus the question is: Do we offer a hand out or a hand up?
I believe the debate should not be about whether a certain person or group deserves any given wage level. The debate should be about how we can maximize the potential of our community work force. If we do this we create opportunities and support systems they need. Provide encouragement to those who want and are willing to work for a better life for themselves and their families. We send a positive message to existing and prospective companies, and we help our long-term community economic picture.
If we really want to help people, how can we feel good about passing an ordinance that tells our work force your best potential income is tied to federal government poverty guidelines? By doing this, do we really respect and encourage their potential? How do we tell them we are going to help them survive and grow financially by basing their salary on federal poverty guidelines? Is this what the supporters would want for themselves? I believe this ordinance will send a discouraging message that we don't believe they can achieve on their own and they must reconcile to government dependency. I think we can, and should, do better.
I propose that existing and new companies that qualify and receive tax abatements should earn additional tax abatements if they train and promote low-skilled entry-level employees into higher-paying positions. These employees would then be on a track for future wage and benefit improvements based on their continued skill and performance improvements.
To expand opportunities for training and development, these incentives could be extended to existing companies that cannot otherwise afford to bring on a low-skilled worker to train them. The focus should be on employee self-improvement, thus companies would not be required to pay the so-called living wage at the start of employment. The employees would be expected to improve their performance in a timely manner to qualify for and grow into ever-increasing wages that would normally exceed any living wage level.
One of the real negatives of a living wage ordinance is that the employees have no job mobility. They are locked into either a single employer or a few different potential employers due to the living wage requirement. There is no market competition for their employment. If we really want to maximize the potential of our work force, our workers have to learn skills and methods of improving performance to make them attractive to other potential employers. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have companies competing for all members of our work force?
During our considerations, we must realize all communities need all wage levels and we need them to exist in many different companies. This allows people to gain experience, grow and make determinations about career choices. This is how we all started.
I know the current city commissioners signed political promise cards they feel obligate them to support a living wage ordinance. I also know the commission was elected to help improve the economic climate in Lawrence and represent all Lawrence citizens, not just a political minority. It is also common for elected officials to re-evaluate their campaign positions when they realize there are better and lasting ways to really help people.
I sincerely hope the commission exhibits leadership by rejecting the contentious living wage ordinance and sponsoring a community initiative to garner majority support from our citizens and businesses to define ways to improve the long-term future employment prospects of our work force and improve the economic future of Lawrence.
David Reynolds is a Lawrence resident.