New minimum wage good, but not enough

Aug 31, 2016 at 12:08 pm
Art by Damon Thompson
Art by Damon Thompson

Labor Day 2016. End-of-summer cookouts. Store sales. A day off.

More than that, if you take a harder look.

Almost two years ago, a majority of Louisville Metro Council members voted for a local law, whose first line cited our status as a Compassionate City, “to help lift working families out of poverty, decrease income inequality and boost the economy” by increasing the minimum wage.

Both Kentucky and federal minimum wages are $7.25 an hour. Now, having reached the second of three incremental increases enacted by the ordinance, Louisville’s minimum wage is $8.25 an hour, on its way next summer to $9. After that, the wage will be tied to the consumer price index, with increases of no more than 3 percent a year.

That’s if the law is still standing.

Louisville’s effort was not enough in the eyes of some who wanted more — indeed, among the several dozen cities throughout the nation that have raised their wage, some increases are much heftier.

But it was too much in the eyes of others who didn’t want any mandated increase at all. Which is why the law, though in effect, is still a work in progress: A legal challenge by business organizations is ongoing; the Kentucky Supreme Court is weighing the merits of the new-ish law right now.

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy tells us Louisville’s effort will impact at least 45,000 workers by the time the law is fully realized next summer.

Executive Director Jason Bailey writes, “Of the workers affected, an estimated 88 percent are at least 20 years old and more are over the age of 50 than are teenagers. Fifty-seven percent are women, 60 percent work full-time and 28 percent have a child in the household.”

For instance:

Meet Kelcey Schupp, 22, and Sabrina Nelson, 30.

They are the real-life beneficiaries of the law. They personify the statistics offered in the back and forth over the minimum wage. They are the flesh-and-blood counterparts to the ideas we may have about the wage and the people who earn it.

Kristen Tipton, left, director at Southside Christian Child Care Day Care Center at†10315 Deering Road in Valley Station, introduces new teacher Shelby Alford, right, to her first classroom as she begins her first day at work. - Photo by Brian Bohannon
Photo by Brian Bohannon
Kristen Tipton, left, director at Southside Christian Child Care Day Care Center at†10315 Deering Road in Valley Station, introduces new teacher Shelby Alford, right, to her first classroom as she begins her first day at work.

“We take care of your kids”

As teachers at two Southside Christian Child Care Centers in Louisville — both are high school graduates, both left college after a brief time — they now earn $8.25 an hour.

That’s not exclusively how they want people to see them, because that’s not how they see themselves.

In conversation, they remind us that they are more than the sum of the earnings for jobs they love and value:

“We take care of your kids,” Schupp said. “We teach them standards and get them ready for doing things in the world.”

“I don’t think people understand how hard we work,” Nelson said. “I can have up to six other kids’ lives in my hands.”

Yes, they are grateful for the increase, but it’s not enough to make real differences in the lives of their families. Schupp has a daughter who soon will be 2 years old. Nelson has three sons, age 9 and younger.

Both women live with their mothers to make ends meet.

Sabrina Nelson, left, food service manager at Southside Christian Child Care Day Care Center at†10315 Deering Road in Valley Station, walks to the kitchen. - Photo by Brian Bohannon
Photo by Brian Bohannon
Sabrina Nelson, left, food service manager at Southside Christian Child Care Day Care Center at†10315 Deering Road in Valley Station, walks to the kitchen.

Financial squeeze

They think their work deserves more, and so do their bosses, who say they support the increase 100 percent — and think the workers should make more.

“They should be making $12 to $15 an hour,” said Brenda Bowman, COO of the Southside Christian Child Care and Preschool network and president of Child Care Advocates of Kentucky, a nonprofit agency that encourages the state to invest more in early childhood education. “They’re not selling shoes or hamburgers. They are taking care of people’s pride and joy ... and our future little Kentuckians.”

Southside Christian would like to pay them more, but Bowman said the center is being squeezed by the state and cannot afford to boost wages. The state reimburses the center for a portion of the cost of caring for each child enrolled in the state subsidy program, but that reimbursement had not risen for a decade, until this year. Meanwhile, costs have gone up, including, now, the minimum wage. If more money came from the state, Bowman said, then workers could be paid more.

But that’s a different (and equally important) story for another day.

For Labor Day, we need to know that Schupp dreamed of being a neonatal nurse, but dropping out of college took care of that. Landing her current job in April put her closer to part of that dream — working with children — coming true. “I love it,” she said. I’m doing what I want to do. I don’t like the pay, but I don’t want to leave.”

Schupp leaves her La Grange home well before dawn every work morning in order to open up her Louisville center by 6 a.m. One of the perks of her job is being able to bring her daughter with her (rules prevent teachers from having their own kids in their own classrooms), and she qualifies for the state child-care subsidy, which is honored where she works and which makes the care affordable and allows her to hold this job.

She does more than change diapers and keep everything clean for her 1-year-old charges: She teaches them sign language, ABCs, colors, shapes and other basics.

After work, there is time for dinner and a bath and a little bit of play time with her daughter, before they go to bed. And then they do it all again the next day.

Her weekly take-home pay, after taxes, she said, is $200-something.

Full week, just $200

Nelson said she gave up a better-paying job for the teacher’s position she has held for over a year. The second-shift warehouse work where she earned $5 more an hour was not only hard on her body, it was hard on her and her family: She missed a lot of her oldest son’s growing up.

Now, with a daily 6:30 a.m.-to-3:30 p.m. schedule, “I work and still have a life and can be at home with my kids at night,” she said.

She takes care of toddlers every day. “A lot of people can’t handle it, you see so many come and go,” she said of the job. “You have to have the passion. When you see the smiles on the kids’ faces when they’re singing, dancing, reading books, it makes it all better.”

She is able to bring her children to the center with her; her older son goes to school from there and returns in the afternoon. Her weekly take-home pay, after taxes and child care — she, too, is grateful for the child care assistance — is about $200. She said she thinks the increase to $9 an hour, scheduled for next year, will make more of a difference than have the increases so far.

Can’t live on love

Kristen Tipton is a regional manager for Southside Christian Child Care and has an office where Nelson works. She’s been with the company for six years, after leaving a job as an account executive with another company to be more involved with her then-18-month-old daughter’s life and development. Her daughter is now in third grade, and she comes to the center every day, too.

Tipton notes the hard facts about the expenses and economics of her industry, and the turnover that produces, but she adds that there are paths to certificates and degrees and scholarships available to employees who are interested. And, she said, “The people who are doing this for the right reason — for the kids — stay here.”

For their part, Schupp and Nelson said their jobs are a labor of love. (For their part, Bowman and Tipton say the same.)

But you can’t live on love.

Schupp said, “If I can’t get a raise, I have to get another job.” And: “I need to be a better example for my daughter and show her how to do things.”

Nelson said, “I was wanting to go back to school, but I think I want to stay here and get my (child development associate) certificate. This is something I like to do.” •