As an employer, Harrisonburg is close to living wage certification. What’s holding it back?

By Logan Roddy, contributor

Correction: Ramona Sanders’ name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.

Leading up to the 2020 city council election, Ramona Sanders, leader of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Living Wage Campaign, began working with Democratic candidates to try to move Harrisonburg’s city government toward certification as a living wage employer. 

Since late last year, the campaign has recognized more than 30 area employers for paying what the organization considers a living wage. But completing the city’s certification has proven more elusive.

“To have such a high-profile employer — one of the main ones in our community — certified I think that speaks volumes to the way our city cares about this issue,” said Chris Hoover Seidel, a steering committee member on the campaign who works alongside Sanders. 

The campaign uses three levels of certification to recognize employers who are paying (or on their way to paying) a living wage, based on the MIT Calculator and Universal Living Wage Calculation. That tiered system consists of the Aspiring Level ($11/hr or $9.50/hr plus healthcare), the Silver Level ($12.50/hr or $11/hr plus healthcare) and the Gold Level ($15/hr or $13.50 plus healthcare). Applying for certification doesn’t cost employers anything.

Sanders and Seidel said the system helps motivate employers to pursue certification at the highest level, while also recognizing that increasing wages can be a gradual process.

As an employer, the city already would be close to qualifying for certification, Seidel said.

“They may need to raise the wages of a few workers but for the most part they are paying most of their employees at the gold level from what we understand,” Seidel said. 

Since January, the city has posted 11 new position listings online with wages between $11.63 and $14.90/hr, which still puts Harrisonburg within the range to qualify at the Silver Level. All of those open positions that would hold the city back from qualifying as a Gold Level wage employer are either seasonal or part time jobs in the Parks and Recreation or Customer Service departments, with the exception of the city bus driver and school bus driver openings. 

While the city also has a cost of living increase built into these salaries, the city doesn’t cover the costs of a living wage for a single adult without children, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator.

The living wage campaign has focused on the city, not only because of the 617 people it employs full-time, but because of its prominence. 

Michael Parks, the city’s communications director, said of those full-time employees, 30 earn less than $15 per hour. But he added that the number would drop to 15 on July 1 if the city council adopts the current proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2022. The council is expected to take that up at its next meeting, May 25. 

“I think it’s very important that we get the city certified to show that we are the Friendly City and we do these efforts,” Sanders said. “The minimum wage in Virginia is going to raise more and more over the years until 2025, and it’ll reach $15/hour so Chris and I still have some work to do until 2025.” 

Still, at $15 an hour, someone is “not making a lot of money,” she said. 

Seidel said rising costs of basics, such as housing costs, in addition to inflation in general, continues to move the goalposts for lower-wage workers. 

“So, we’re still so far behind,” Seidel said. 

Lois Shank, chair of Bridge of Hope’s board of directors, shows off the certification from the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Living Wage Campaign in 2019. (File photo)

Taking a step?

Councilmember George Hirschmann said because of the economic circumstances of the pandemic, if the city can’t reach the Gold Level certification “that if we could qualify at least for the Silver Level, that’s a step forward.”

Hirschmann said raising wages is a gradual process, and some employers are more equipped than others to start paying their employees higher wages in the near future. But in order to immediately bring the city’s certification up to the Gold Level, he said it would require also raising taxes.

“So if you can take baby steps and go in that direction and keep your eye on it in the coming years then we’re gonna get there. And I’m a little bit more comfortable with that as opposed to just jumping in and raising people’s taxes,” Hirschmann said.

Councilmember Laura Dent, one of the 2020 candidates who embraced the living wage campaign, said she agreed that the first step would be to certify the city at the wage level where it currently stands before moving forward. She said she’s tried to bring the issue from the back burner to the forefront with other council members since her election.

“I think that in a way it might be on hold until we get a new HR director which is slated and budgeted to happen this year,” Dent said. She added that she hopes to reconnect with Sanders to update her on the progress. “I agree in principle, and it’s just a matter of getting the timing right to move forward with it.” 

As more “help wanted” signs are popping up,  Hirschmann said it’s a “product of the times, and the needs of the companies, and the needs of the people, who are essentially out of work.”

But Hirschmann said he understands why some people might prefer to remain unemployed rather than take a job that you can’t survive on.

“Why go back to work? I can make more just sitting here,” Hirschmann said. “I’m watching people out there on Market Street standing around with their signs saying, ‘Hey, I need some help, I need some money,’ and there’s like five hiring signs behind them, and I’m saying, ‘I’m not buying that.’”

Aiming for positive reinforcement

As Sanders and Seidel continue encouraging employers to recognize their employees’ needs, they insist that their nonpartisan campaign is meant to be a positive way to inform consumers about the businesses they frequent.

“We’re not doing anything to shame or even discipline any other organizations or businesses,” Seidel said. “In fact, one of the things we talked about with Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance is that we understand that small local businesses are struggling, especially through this pandemic, so part of what we’ve been saying is support all of the local businesses so they can eventually qualify as living wage employers.”

She also said that if anything good came out of the pandemic, it’s that it has raised awareness about how close many people are to slipping between the cracks and into poverty.

“We’re always talking about the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) population, and who falls under the ALICE threshold, and even within that there’s a level that’s considered secure whereas one big hospital bill will put you at risk for homelessness or poverty, versus ALICE at risk, and a lot of the families we’re working with are already in poverty,” Seidel said. 

She said it’s surprising how the national minimum wage has remained $7.25 for 11 years, and the pandemic only underscores the need for this campaign.

“How can you make sense of that?” Seidel said. “Especially when you’re just comparing it to rent prices and housing costs in your area— let alone all the other things that have been affected by the raise in the cost of living?”

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