Guarantee of living wage would help our communities thrive
Originally published in the Star-Advertiser, February 4, 2019
PHOCUSED Board Chair
The need for a living wage is pressing. More than two decades as the CEO of AlohaCare has made me very familiar with the needs of the most vulnerable in Hawaii. Since retiring two years ago, my seat on the board of PHOCUSED has allowed me to clearly see, through our community partner organizations, the challenges posed by poverty among children, kupuna, those with special needs, and low-income workers.
It does not take acute powers of observation to see what a diﬀerence to life a little more income would make. The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism is clear: $21,000 a year — that’s what full-time, minimum-wage workers make at $10.10 an hour — simply does not allow them to meet basic needs in high-cost Hawaii. It is by no stretch of the imagination — or the dollar — a living wage.
We are a deeply interconnected island community. Don’t those interconnections and our sense of ohana and aloha require us to use all the tools at our disposal to lessen the suﬀering of our families, friends and neighbors? Reducing the disproportionate tax burden on the poor is one of those tools. Enacting a living wage — $17 an hour — is another.
We have seen how poverty limits access to health care and education, stiﬂes potential for development, makes kupuna care more challenging, and contributes to mental illness, addiction and domestic violence. We cannot say we are serious about addressing these issues if we don’t then also prioritize how we allocate our resources and shape our policy- making.
Speeches and good intent are not enough. We need to honestly answer the question: Can what we are doing now sustain our island ohana into the future?
Some organizations are already paying more than the minimum wage. But we need government’s help to catch up in terms of policy, and we need private and public sector cooperation to make this work long term.
As legislative hearings commence for several minimum-wage bills, it is important for more community and business leaders to speak up. Do any of us honestly believe that we — or anyone — can survive on $21,000 a year? Why would we pay workers less than what they and their families can live on? To do so surely diminishes the spirit of our island life.
Maui small-business owner and newly elected state Rep. Tina Wildberger recently said that “at the current $10.10 minimum wage you won’t get anyone to even darken your doorway. It’s time to raise the minimum wage.” Her company has, for years, paid above the minimum wage and provided beneﬁts. It is clear that businesses can beneﬁt through increased employee retention, productivity and decreased cost for recruitment and training.
If a small business selling ice on Maui can do it, other small businesses should look into the eyes of their employees and do likewise. Teacher-turned-newly-elected-Rep. Amy Perruso said she was advancing a bill for a living wage because she was motivated by the suﬀering of the children she taught and the poverty of the families they came from that made it so hard for them to cope at school. And it is directly tied to workers who are struggling to do well enough at one job to move their wages up — while running to a second job to supplement income.
We urge you to become familiar with the realities of the A.L.I.C.E. (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Hawaii report. The current situation is simply not sustainable. It’s time to take concrete steps to address the fallout from poverty. We will all ultimately beneﬁt. Every penny that is given in a living wage will be spent back in our communities. We urge lawmakers to enact a living wage in Hawaii without delay.