“God of justice, you have spoken through your prophets in centuries past and you speak through your prophets today. You call us to walk in other people’s shoes; to love one another as we love ourselves -- as you love us; to open our minds and our hearts to the plight of our brothers and sisters in need; to bring about the abundant life you long for all your children to enjoy.”
With those words, the Rev. Kate Atkinson of St. Paul’s Church opened an interfaith prayer breakfast calling for dignity for all workers. The breakfast preceded a public hearing on HB 1403, a bill to re-establish a state minimum wage in New Hampshire and raise it from $7.25 to $9 an hour over the next two years.
“We stand in solidarity with those whose earnings are insufficient for their basic needs, those whose rights are violated; those who are exploited by their employers and treated with disrespect,” Rev. Atkinson continued. “We pray for the restoration of human dignity through a fair and just minimum wage.”
The prayer breakfast was organized by the Economic Justice Mission Group of the United Church of Christ New Hampshire Conference with support from the AFSC’s New Hampshire Program. Participants included members of the Granite State Organizing Project, several state legislators, and representatives from several unions. For Rev. Gail Kinney, who led the service, this year’s campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage is a perfect reason to unite faith and labor communities.
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Ken Roos is First Vice President of the NH State Employees Association and also a past president of Concord’s Temple Beth Jacob. “If there is a single common theme running throughout Jewish tradition, it is that of social justice,” he said. “Our Torah emphasizes the importance of a worker’s wages. Deuteronomy tells us: ‘You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer… but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it.’ Roos said. “A fair minimum wage is more than a specific salary. It is the ability to lead a life with pride and dignity, and it is the ability to participate fully in the life of this nation, and to hold one’s head high as a proud member of a community.”
“We ask for blessings on all workers who toil in minimum wage and poverty wage jobs,” 25 participants recited together. “Like Moses before the Pharaoh, we cry to our legislators to ‘let our people go.’ Free them from wage slavery. Make their work pay enough to feed their families.”
[Watch a video of the prayer for worker justice.]
Speaking later that morning before the House Labor Committee, Anita Mendes explained to the House Labor Committee how difficult it is to get by on the minimum wage. “For the past four years, I have worked in the nonprofit sector at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour,” she testified. Mendes, who has a Masters degree in social work and who has had a full career in human services, said, “I need this work in order to supplement my monthly social security income. The only way I can get by on this very low income is to live without many things that my peers would consider simply ‘keeping up with modern times.’”
Other speakers testified that most minimum wage workers are adults, many of them parents. "We pray for people like the 43 year old woman with two children who works at a fast food restaurant in our state, who worked her way up to shift manager to earn $8.80 an hour," said Rev. William Exner, who heads the Diocesan Outreach Commission for the Episcopal Church and is an active member of the Granite State Organzing Project. "8.80 an hour," Rev. Exner emphasized, "and she has been a shift manager for five years."
This worker's story underlines an important fact: most low-wage workers are employed by large corporations, not mom-and-pop stores and locally owned restaurants.
New Hampshire’s legislature wiped the state’s minimum wage off the law books in 2011. That means lawmakers have to re-establish the state’s authority to set a minimum wage before they can raise it. HB 1403 would do that, and then it would set the minimum wage at $8.25 an hour as of January 1, 2014, raise it again to $9 an hour at the beginning of 2015, and then index further annual increases to the consumer price index.
Rep. Sally Kelly, the bill’s prime sponsor, spoke at the breakfast about her own prayerful consideration of the issue and her conclusion that raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do.
It's also popular, she told the Labor Committee. "Last week's Granite State Poll confirms that 76% of Granite Staters support increasing the New Hampshire minimum wage to $ 9per hour. That includes 64% of Republicans, 70% of independents, and 91% of Democrats," Rep. Kelly said.
The Labor Committee will consider the bill in executive session in the next couple weeks, then send a recommendation to the House floor, where passage is likely. A tougher fight is expected in the State Senate, which last year rejected bills that would have re-established a state minimum wage but left it at $7.25.
That wage is too low for workers to afford New Hampshire’s available rental housing, testified Maggie Fogarty of the AFSC’s New Hampshire Program. “According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a New Hampshire minimum wage worker would need to work 113 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, in order to afford a typical 2-bedroom apartment. This is 7 hours more than we reported in testimony to you last year when similar legislation was considered,” she told the Labor Committee.
Looking at the same arithmetic from a different perspective, a worker would have to earn $20.47 an hour to afford a typical 2-bedroom apartment. That amount is $1.18 more in hourly wages than it was a year ago, the last time the House Labor Committee considered bills raising the state’s minimum wage.
“If you believe that a person who works full-time ought to be able to afford a roof over her head, you will vote to raise the minimum wage,” Fogarty said.
Other speakers approached the minimum wage from the perspectives of economics and labor history. But Rev. Mary Westfall may have summed it up best, borrowing from the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord desire for you? Worker justice, living wages, and abundant life for all.”