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Rev. Peter Goodwin Heltzel, Ph.D. Headshot

Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied: Why NYC's People of Faith Must Take Up the Living Wage Fight

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There is an ironic injustice in it all: a billionaire commissions a million-dollar study to consider the life chances of the poor. At a moment when our city sits at the center of the foreclosure and unemployment crisis, Mayor Bloomberg has chosen to spend a million dollars of the city's money to commission a study on how paying a living wage to the poor might affect the non-poor. Let us be clear, the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act would only result in an annual salary of $20,800 with benefits for full-time work. With the cost of living in New York City, even that salary is nearly impossible to live on individually, and impossible if one is working hard to feed a family. Is this what we have come to? Is New York City a place where those who have resources study the needs of those who have little?

We say no! As faith leaders, we stand with the ancient and wise traditions of the prophets who argued for justice and shalom. Since all people are made in God's image, all people should have the opportunity for gainful employment and fair wages. Inspired by the civil rights movement, we advocate for the economic rights for all, not protection for wealthy business interests. We are partnering with labor leaders and community leaders in a growing coalition for economic justice.

When it comes to living wages in New York City, give us no more studies to tell us what we already know. The million dollars being spent on the study could turn 174 minimum-wage jobs into full-time living-wage jobs for a year. It's time for New York to step up to the plate and heed the cries of its impoverished workers. We pray that Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn will hear their cries.

New York City invests billions of public dollars each year in real estate developments, such as shopping centers, that are promoted as providing jobs for New Yorkers. Because the jobs created tend to pay poverty wages, the proposed "Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act" would guarantee that workers in large, taxpayer-subsidized development projects would be paid at least the New York City Living Wage of $10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 without benefits. In the words of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., "It's a simple equation: if you want a public charity for your development, then your development has to be charitable to the public."

Seventeen cities across the nation have similar living wage laws on the books -- in some areas these laws have been in place for years. These cities have witnessed first-hand the positive impact the legislation has had on families and local economies, and it is time for New York City to follow suit. New York's workers need change now! Morenike Dagbo, a retail worker in Staten Island, says, "Struggling New York minimum wage workers should not have to work multiple jobs and limitless hours just to keep the lights on. There has to be a turning point where 'those in charge' realize the economic hardships of 'those in need.'" Working families cannot wait another year to be able to pay their rent and buy their groceries.

"Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all God's children. Now is the time for City Hall to take a position for that which is good and honest," said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis a few weeks before he was brutally murdered for fighting for the sanitation workers' rights to a living wage. Today, 42 years later, why do civil leaders need to study the merits of a living wage?

No more delays, Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn. As Dr. King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, "Too often, justice delayed is justice denied." In this missive Dr. King was addressing political moderates in Birmingham, Alabama who were telling him to slow down the struggle for racial justice. Mayor Bloomberg is similarly using this study as a delay tactic for passing the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act into law. Religious leaders are watching and mobilizing in this stout-hearted struggle for justice for New York City's workers. We will not be delayed, we will not be distracted, we will not forget the least of these. We will march on, we will hold the line, and we will stand strong -- together. As the Psalmist says, we will work to "maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor." We call on people of faith to join the growing movement for a living wage in New York City.