The phrase “a living wage” is not an oxymoron! Today, with hundreds of others, I was at LA City Hall as part of a broad coalition of groups (I went as a member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice Los Angeles – CLUE-LA) urging the City Council to vote to create a minimum wage that is designed to be a “Living Wage” ($15.25 an hour). So, why should Jews be concerned about this?
The Torah only really has a couple of verses that might apply, which doesn’t seem like much. On the other hand, the Torah can say a great deal in two verses:
“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to God against you and you will incur guilt.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).
First, this means that a living wage is not an oxymoron. In addition, these verses clearly state that paying a decent wage on time has nothing to do with whether the worker is “legal” or a “documented” (“countryman or stranger”). Rather, fairness in wages has to do with the reality the s/he is “needy and destitute.” People working today under the euphemism we call “Minimum Wage” are actually living well below the Federal Government’s official poverty line. They are certainly “needy” and are constantly on the cusp of being “destitute”. All it takes some sort of urgency (illness, a fire, a stolen truck or tools of a trade, etc.) and they will be destitute. Today, we call minimum wage workers (currently $9 an hour in California – going up to $10 an hour in 2016) “working poor”. AND THAT IS AN OXYMORON!
Paying wages “on the same day, before the sun sets” also applies. If we overlay the biblical proscription of paying workers on the same day they work onto minimum wage workers, than the true wages due that are due to them, that they have earned, have been withheld from them long after “the sun has set” – not just for a day, but for for months or even years!,
We shouldn’t feel motivated to help the working poor because we will “incur guilt” neither should we put anyone in the position to complain to God because we, in some way, are responsible for them not being paid enough. That should make us feel guilty! Even though we don’t directly pay all the people who provide services for us, who bus our tables, who wash the toilets, who mop the floors, who clean our hotel rooms, who wash our cars, who shelve our groceries, who put the steel in our buildings, who care for and clean up after our elderly and infirm, we are all part of the system that keeps them where they are – working and poor.
It will be pennies on the dollar for us if these workers earn $15.25 an hour. That –barely! – living wage will enable these workers to perhaps have one job instead of two or three, to be with their children, to not have to choose between filling a prescription or eating. They will have more money in their pockets to feed into the economy – better for all of us.
The Torah is brief and to the point – these workers are “needy and urgently depend” on us, on a true living wage, – now. This is a city-by-city campaign. Seattle and San Francisco have already passed a $15 an hour minimum wage. Your city can, too. The Torah, or God or Adonai or Allah or Jesus or Krishna can’t make a phone call to your city council person – but you can. We are the spiritual made actual, manifest in the world – not by what we believe – but rather but what we do.