A Living Wage
A living wage? Before last week, I thought that was an issue facing underemployed workers breaking their backs for $9 an hour and trying to pay for housing, food, and child care. And yet, last week, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards passed a Living Wage Teshuva (a legal “response” to a question of Jewish law) obligating Conservative organizations like schools, synagogues and summer camps to provide their employees with a living wage, defined by Rabbi Jill Jacobs via a number of criteria.
Certainly I was not surprised – I know enough day school teachers and Jewish communal service workers to know that Jewish organizations (Conservative or otherwise) are not known for their generous pay scale. And yet, upon reflection, I think that this decision is a victory specific to women. A cursory investigation of the faculty and staff rolls of several Jewish schools and organizations shows that a vast majority are women. Women are the teachers, development associates, administrative assistants, and program coordinators in these institutions, not to mention custodial staff, and they are the ones who will benefit most if the teshuva is put into practice (for there is no Conservative Movement enforcement patrol to ensure that a “housing wage” or “self-sufficiency” wage is being offered).
There has been some controversy over the decision with opponents worried that the financial burden on institutions will be too great. What a shame that a matter of providing employees with the means to support themselves and their families creates controversy! I can’t help but wonder if men manned the telephones, mopped the floors, and headed the classrooms of the Conservative Movement, would there be the same concern? When institutions – Jewish and otherwise -- make the assumption that their female employees are not the primary wage earners in their homes, they feel free to pay them little more than subsistence wages (evidence of both poor funding and a lack of value and prestige placed on traditionally “women’s work”). But according to a 2005 study, half of adult women do not live in homes with a spouse, and it seems too obvious to even mention that there are many (probably a majority of) married or partnered women who share in or are solely responsible for the financial stability of their families.
It is my hope that not only will the institutions of the Conservative Movement authentically implement the recommendations of the teshuva, but that other Jewish movements and institutions will follow suit. And quick.