City leaders voice interest in voluntary living wage registry for local businesses

City leaders are interested in creating a registry that would inform the public — whether potential employees or customers — which businesses in Lawrence pay a living wage.

The idea of a voluntary living wage registry was brought to the Lawrence City Commission during public comment at its meeting Tuesday. Lawrence resident Mike Wasikowski said some Lawrence residents struggle to cover their basic living expenses, including things like housing, utilities, food, transportation and child care. Wasikowski noted Kansas City, Mo., recently began such a program and that a Lawrence registry would help residents know where they could find jobs that could help them afford a basic quality of life, and inform the public as well.

“Customers and business patrons like myself can choose to spend their money at businesses that they know are paying Lawrencians a living wage,” Wasikowski said, “because we pride ourselves on being a progressive and inclusive community, but we can’t uphold that ideal while thousands of us struggle just to live in Lawrence.”

It is unclear exactly what a business would have to pay to be listed on the registry, but a city ordinance currently requires businesses that recently have received tax abatements and other incentives to pay at least $12.99 an hour. It has been suggested that level would be appropriate for a local living wage program.

Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen, Commissioner Jennifer Ananda and Commissioner Matthew Herbert said Tuesday they were interested in the concept and looking further into the program in Kansas City, Mo. Herbert said he’d be happy to push that discussion forward in Lawrence. But some in the business community said such a registry, even if voluntary, is divisive and unfair to businesses.

States versus cities

Herbert later told the Journal-World that he sees a voluntary registry as a nice way to thank the businesses that go above and beyond in order to pay living wages.

“Within the confines of state law, it’s our best opportunity to reward businesses that voluntarily have taken it upon themselves to pay a living wage and thereby make the community a better place,” he said.

A living wage is generally defined as the wage that is enough to maintain a basic standard of living in relation to the cost of living of a particular area. Kansas is among the approximately two dozen states that generally ban cities from deviating from the state-set minimum wage, according to the National League of Cities.

Kansas City, Mo., started its voluntary registry after the state Legislature passed such a law. The registry, which is administered by the city clerk’s office, began May 1 and has about 10 businesses registered so far. Last year, Kansas City residents voted overwhelmingly to set the city’s minimum wage at $10 an hour, and gradually increase that rate to $15 per hour by 2022, according to the Kansas City Star. The state law went into effect shortly after the local vote, and the city council subsequently created the voluntary registry, which follows that same wage schedule, according to the Star.

Local considerations

Kansas follows the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, which equates to about $15,000 per year for a full-time worker. The wage does not apply to some workers, such as tipped employees, and has not increased since 2009.

Herbert said he thinks Lawrence could use the city’s existing wage floor as the criteria for the voluntary living wage registry. As far as costs for the city go, he said he doesn’t think creating such a registry would require a lot of resources. He said he envisions the city setting up a website that makes the information available and providing participating businesses a sticker for their doors, similar to what the city will be doing for the voluntary commercial recycling program.

The city’s existing ordinance requires businesses that receive incentives to pay the related positions above the wage floor, which is equal to 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold for a family of three people, as established annually by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Only a few businesses currently fall under the ordinance. For this year, the wage floor equates to $27,014 annually, or the equivalent of about $12.99 per hour.

Is it fair?

Should the idea of voluntary registry move forward, there are likely to be varying opinions from those in the business community.

Meredith Moore, one of the owners of the downtown art shop Wonder Fair, said she would be supportive of a voluntary registry, but also said it wouldn’t work for everyone. She said Wonder Fair, which opened as a volunteer-run organization from the ownership on down, was fortunate to be able to become sustainable and is now paying wages that fall in line with the city’s wage floor.

“For us, we’re looking at a model of employment that doesn’t exploit what we have in Lawrence, which is a really high turnover workforce of university students,” Moore said.

Moore said she thinks the conversation about a voluntary living wage registry could also be more expansive. She said the city should carefully consider what the requirements for the registry should be, and that may go beyond just an hourly wage. She said the hourly rate should not be looked at in isolation, as whether employees are provided health care and other benefits can make a big difference.

“The more mindfully we think about what a living wage is, the more we’ll probably identify other areas we need to work on, what makes the quality of life in Lawrence good,” Moore said. “And it’s not just always about money.”

Leaders with the local chamber of commerce had some concerns. Chamber Vice President of Economic Development Steve Kelly said he thinks a registry could be unfair to those businesses that are not able to meet the standard, particularly those in the hospitality industry. He also said it would be difficult to account for some industries, such as businesses whose employees are paid partly in tips or those that offer first job opportunities.

“To me, it’s almost trying to accomplish what might be a positive goal through a shaming process, which just doesn’t seem right to me,” Kelly said.

Chamber President and CEO Larry McElwain said he thinks a voluntary registry sounds better than it would be in practice, and that implementing such a program could be difficult. He said wages are just one piece of criteria of a good business, and that such a program could also be divisive for businesses.

“It maybe creates those that are ‘good’ businesses versus those that someone would judge because they don’t have that sticker in their window,” McElwain said.

He also said that with a low unemployment rate, competition in the labor market is already naturally driving up wages, and the registry could make things even more difficult for those companies not in the program to recruit workers if they are seen in a negative light.

Herbert said that he thinks because the registry would be voluntary, there is no punitive measure. He said if wages are already going up, then that will just mean that more businesses can be on the registry. He said he doesn’t see that as a negative, and that he thinks it’s the city’s role to help reward businesses that pay a living wage and let the public know which businesses those are.

“What’s happening is we’re letting our community members know, in a community that’s very progressive and wants a community built around the idea that people who work hard should be able to support a family,” Herbert said. “As a city I think that’s our role, to help embrace companies that are doing that.”


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