Ann Toback’s New York Wage Board Testimony

The below testimony was delivered by our Executive Director Ann Toback on Monday, June 15, 2015, to the New York Wage Board, as it considered raising fast food workers’ minimum wage to $15/hour.

Ann was among the hundreds of activists and fast food workers who testified in support of the national Fight For $15 campaign. As a result, the New York Wage Board recommended raising fast-food pay in all of New York State to $15 an hour.

My name is Ann Toback and I am the Executive Director of the Workmen’s Circle, a progressive Jewish social justice organization founded in 1900 that today connects a growing activist community of Jews of all affiliations with their cultural and social justice heritage.

The Workmen’s Circle has been fighting for workers’ rights since the turn of the 20th century, when our members helped found the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and many others in the growing labor movement.

Today, with the exploitation of low wage workers, we are seeing history repeat itself and we are drawing on our 100+ years of experience in organizing around our Jewish values of social and economic justice to help strengthen a grassroots movement that is advocating for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

We are proud today to stand and support a movement founded and organized two-and-a-half years ago by fast food workers and their leadership in response to their struggle to meet their daily life needs all the while working many hours each week in low wage jobs.

We want to be clear: $15 an hour is not a final goal nor a ceiling, but it is a start to addressing the plague of income inequality in New York and in the United States, where over 10 million people fall into the category of working poor. We stand here because it is unconscionable to expect families, single parents with children, young men and women, to be able to live on anything less than $15 an hour. Living on $15 an hour in New York would be a challenge for anyone, and right now we are asking wage earners to make do on far less. Workers who put in over 40 hours a week shouldn’t have to make choices to purchase food for their families or to pay their utility bills, and that is a choice too many New Yorkers are making today.

Our Jewish tradition prizes justice as a paramount value. A watchword of our people for a millennia – and today – is “Justice, justice, you shall pursue!” For centuries, the Jewish community around the world has accepted the responsibility not only to assist the poor, but also to empower the needy to become self-supportive and to live with dignity. Our historic texts and modern commentaries emphasize the importance of fairness to workers because it is fundamentally the right thing to do. Today we are following in the footsteps of centuries of employers, workers, and activists and demanding that our society embrace these same practices of economic justice by legislating a $15 minimum wage.

The question of poverty, low wages and income inequality is an important issue for the Jewish community, both because of our tradition of economic justice advocacy, and also because the Jewish community of New York is significantly impacted by the increasing numbers of our own members who fall at or below the poverty level. According to a UJA study of Jewish poverty in New York City and the

three suburban counties in 2011, over 560,000 Jewish people live at or near the poverty line. That’s one in four Jewish households in New York City alone. The number of poor Jewish households today has doubled in the last twenty years. So much about the working poor is hidden from our view, including the fact that 45% of all children in Jewish households in New York City are living at or below the poverty level. Over half of our poor or near-poor households includes one or two full-time working adults. These are horrible numbers to hear, and they alone demand that we take steps to rectify this inequity, though of course we realize that other communities are much harder hit than ours. For all of us, this situation demands immediate and significant action.

THEREFORE:

We welcome the creation of the wage board and we look forward to rapid decisions to address these critical issues.

In closing, we want to be clear: we not only support $15 an hour, but we urge you to consider the human cost of poverty and not only recommend $15 an hour, but recommend it to be fully implemented by the end of 2015.