BJ’s Economic Justice Hevra Asks Us to Talk about Income Inequality

By Marion Katz and Paula Galowitz | Issue Date: September 2012

Paula Galowitz leading budget exercise. Photo: Channa CaminsWhat were over 50 members of BJ doing in lively group discussions in the sanctuary in May? They were participating in a budgeting exercise, trying to make difficult decisions about how to allocate the money received each month from minimum-wage jobs. Every participant assumed that they were part of a family consisting of two minimum-wage earners in full time jobs, with two children, living in the bronx. This exercise was part of an evening of learning, personal testimonies, and discussion about income inequality, living on a minimum wage, and the “Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.”1

Panim el Panim’s newest Hevra, the Economic Justice Hevra, has been actively participating in a broad-based coalition of religious leaders, faith-based congregations, and nonprofit and community groups supporting the “Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.” This bill, which was recently passed by the New York City Council by a vote of 44-5, and then again with a council override of Mayor Bloomberg’s veto, provides that any private development project directly accepting $1 million or more in taxpayer subsidies, with revenue of $5 million or more, must pay employees a “living wage” of $10 an hour with supplemental health benefits or $11.50 an hour without benefits. The bill also establishes a policy for the
New York City Economic Development Corporation to strive for a 75 percent Living Wage goal for all jobs on projects receiving subsidies. Additionally, new wage reporting requirements will result in the disclosure of the percentage of living wage jobs on all subsidized projects. The “living wage” required by this bill would net the average 40-hour-a-week worker slightly under $24,000 a year (when no benefits are provided); while this is not as much as is truly needed, it is an improvement over the current minimum wage in New York of $7.25 an hour, which amounts to $15,080 before taxes for a 40-hour work week.

The program on May 9 began with an inspiring kavannah by Rabbi Felicia Sol, followed by a welcome by Sandy Cheiten, Chair of the Economic Justice Hevra. Sandy told a very poignant story about her father’s fair treatment of workers at his restaurant when she was growing up, explaining why the living wage was so personally important to her and her family. Desiree Pilgrim- Hunter, the president of the North West bronx Community Coalition, recounted how she was unfairly treated as a low-wage retail worker and described some of the history of the living wage campaign. The next speaker was Ava Farkas, community organizer with the Living Wage Campaign/Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, who explained the contents of the “living wage” bill, the history of the coalition supporting the bill, and the critical importance of BJ’s participation. A worker from the Retail Action Project described current conditions in the retail industry and how the “living wage” bill would affect the workers.

The participants then divided into small groups for the budget exercise for a low-wage worker’s family. The exercise helped us to understanding the concrete impact of various choices on the parents, the children, their marriage, their community, and on the city and state. The budgets were developed by each of the groups with accurate costs taken from the Self-Sufficiency Standard For New York City 2010 and information about available benefits like SNAP (food stamps), state health care programs, etc. After the budgeting exercise, Paul Sonn, the legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, spoke about the context of the living wage movement and the broader impact of low wages on the middle class, the economy, and city services.

We discussed select Jewish texts that speak our responsibility to workers. For example, one of the texts was from Deuteronomy (24:14-15):

You shall not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people 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 poor and his life depends on them; otherwise he will cry to the LORD against you.

Participants discussed how we hear the cry of the poor or exploited worker now and how we do or should respond.

Participants at the BJ event left informed and engaged. However, there is still much work to be done. Mayor Bloomberg has filed suit against this new law in order to prevent its implementation.

To get involved with the Economic Justice Hevra contact Sandy Cheiten (chair of the hevra) at cheiten@aol.com.

Paula Galowitz is a public-interest lawyer and social worker. Marion Katz is an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and a long-time volunteer with the Judith Bernstein Lunch Program. They are both members of BJ’s Panim el Panim task force.
  1. The event was entitled “Let’s Talk About Income Inequality: Why Should I Care About Poverty Wages?”