MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A recent County Commission vote sparked new discussion about how “The Fight for 15” could help reduce poverty rates. But the conversation has once again revealed a dividing line.
Doris Conley, 65, starts her day at 6 a.m. at the Barbara K. Lipman Early Learning and Research Center. It’s a pre-school located on The University of Memphis campus. “I used to have my own daycare a long time ago, and I love children. So, this is the perfect spot for me.”
As a custodian, Conley says she takes pride in keeping the facility clean and safe for kids. She’s held the job for nearly 19 years and just recently started making a little over $12 an hour. Conley says it wasn’t easy making ends meet. “I used to have to work three jobs. I worked three jobs to put my daughter through college,” she said.
It’s stories like Conley’s that led Shelby County Commissioner Willie Brooks to introduce a resolution supporting a $15 minimum wage for all public sector employees in Shelby County. It cited more than 600 employees at The U of M and Shelby County Schools that earn less. “Many of the employees that have worked in public sector have been in five or more years, and still below, right at close to minimum wage,” he said.
Shelby County already pays full-time and temporary employees at least $15 an hour. Brooks says the point of the resolution is to encourage others to do the same and help reduce poverty rates in Memphis. “The ability to be able to retain good quality employees becomes the key. So in order to do that, you have to adjust your wages.”
The resolution passed Monday, but along party and racial lines. No Republican voted in favor.
Commissioner Brandon Morrison who abstained, told WREG by email that she’s an advocate of livable wages and supports the concept for employers who are able to pay, but says she does not support mandating it. She also mentioned focusing on a “skilled workforce” where workers can earn high five-figure salaries and not settle on $15 an hour.
Dr. Elena Delavega says numbers show that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour could get a family of four out of poverty. “We’re looking at about $2,000 dollars a month that they would have in their paycheck.” Delavega has spent years researching poverty in Memphis, and authored a major report for MLK50 showing the community still has a long way to go.
While changes have been made, Delavega says, “We are paying people as if what they are doing is not important.”
People like Conley say getting to $15 an hour is long overdue. “I don’t have to worry about being a clown, juggling my bills right now, and that’s what I do. Sometimes I have to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
Shelby County Schools and the city also recently raised minimum wage to $15 an hour for full-time employees. Earlier in 2019, U of M President David Rudd said he supported raising the minimum wage on campus to $15 an hour and requested a study on how to accomplish the increase in a financially responsible way.