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Baylor community discusses implementation of living wages

Nov. 19, 2004

By NELSON STAATS, reporter

Nov. 11, Baylor professors and guests hosted the Living Wage Forum -- a two-hour discussion on the effects of implementing a living wage to low wage workers. A living wage would give employees the salary needed to pay for all of their necessities. The forum presented several different perspectives on the issue relating the living wage to the United States as well as Baylor. Dean of Student Life Todd Lake said the evening was a "resounding success."

"I thought it was wonderful that we had such a good, wide-ranging, wild, energetic discussion," Lake said. "It was wonderful to get all these issues on the table. That's what a university is about. It's fierce yet friendly intellectual conversation on important issues."

The "fierce" nature of the conversation was surprising to some students. Josh Mobley, a Houston senior, described some moments of the forum as "volatile."

"People became really defensive about their position, their situation and their opinions about it," he said. According to Baylor alumnus William Kimble, the differing opinions were what made the forum so special.

The first view presented was the global perspective of the living wage from Baylor alumnus Scott James. James is the marketing director for Pura Vida Coffee. Pura Vida is one of the nation's leading living wage companies. They sell their product over the Internet as well as on 70 college campuses, including Baylor. The company also provides students at these campuses with a unique business model. Pura Vida is a for-profit company owned by a public charity -- a system that allows the company to donate all net profits. In just two quarters of 2004, Pura Vida gave over $45 million to Central American coffee farmers. Dr. Richard Troxell defined the issue in relation to homelessness on a national level.

Troxell, who is the chair of the National Universal Living Wage Organization as well as director of Legal Aid for the Homeless, said that 3.5 million people will be homeless in the United States in 2005. Troxell stated while most homeless people work at some point during the week, they still can't afford to get off the streets. He said he believes the living wage is part of a solution to homelessness.

"We want to make the minimum wage relate to housing, because the antithesis of housing is homelessness," he said.

Dr. Charles North, assistant professor of economics, provided a dissenting view, saying a living wage would be detrimental to those needing it most.

"A mandatory, universal living wage law will not be effective in increasing overall earnings of workers or in reducing poverty," North said.

While he adamantly noted he is in favor of higher employee wages, North believes increasing the national minimum wage would reduce employment.

"It's not putting doctors out of work or lawyers out of work," he said. "It puts low skilled workers out of work because they're the one's getting paid minimum wage."

"The way workers earn more money is by being more productive," he said. "The way you make workers more productive is by increasing human capital."

Melissa Staha is a graduate student from Houston studying economics and sociology of religion. She agrees that the responsibility of adequate wages should be left to the companies paying those wages.

"If we think that this will really work and be helpful to business, why don't you raise the issue to businesses to raise the wages?" she said.

Members of the Baylor Students for Social Justice presented a case study on the wages of the Baylor housekeeping staff. The students claim that a survey they conducted showed Baylor housekeepers receive an average hourly wage less than the living wage for Waco. According to BSSJ's research, the combined salary of two workers earning this wage would be inadequate for the basics of transportation, rent, utilities, food and health care. Baylor does not directly hire the school's 155-member housekeeping staff. These employees are outsourced through Crothall Services Group, a company that specializes in university maintenance. According to Associate Vice President of Operations and Facilities Rick L. Creel, Crothall was not contacted by BSSJ concerning conducting the survey.

"The numbers that Crothall has seen are not accurate. It is company policy not to provide specific wage information," Baylor Housekeeping Director Danny L. Roberts said in an e-mail interview. "However, the wage rate reported by BSSJ is significantly below the actual average wage rate paid by Crothall to its employees."

According to Research Coordinator Rachel Payne, a graduate student from Lancaster, Calif., changing the wage of the Baylor housekeeping staff is BSSJ's top priority. "Basically what we're trying to do is to present to the administration and to the Baylor community that we're a Christian organization, and we're supposed to be supporting Christian ideals, and Christian values," Payne said.