Adding a couple of dollars to the hourly wage of the lowest-paid workers is an essential move, community activists said Tuesday. But those same activists said it still wouldn't come close to giving those employees a living wage.
Raise Idaho, a grass-roots campaign to get a minimum wage initiative on next November's ballot, is trying to gather at least 84,000 signatures within the next four months, organizer Anne Nesse said. So far, she said, "we're about a 10th of the way there."
The group is relying on Idahoans to download petitions from the Raise Idaho website to gather 12 or 24 signatures at a time.
If the measure were to pass it would need a simple majority of Idaho voters it would bump Idaho's minimum hourly wage, frozen in recent years at the federal rate of $7.25, by around 90 cents per year for three years starting in January 2015. From 2018 on, any increases in the wage would be tied to the cost of living index.
The petition drive was launched to address "this huge problem of income inequality that affects all of us," Nesse said.
A full-time minimum wage worker in Idaho earns just more than $15,000 per year, said Ben Henry, of the national Alliance for a Just Society. Like Nesse, Henry was a featured speaker at a telephone news conference held by the Idaho Community Action Network.
To have a living wage, a single adult Idahoan would need to bring in $14.49 per hour, or about $30,000 a year, Henry said. For a family with two working adults, a toddler and a school-age child, each of those adults would need to earn $17.69 (nearly $37,000 a year) to qualify as earning a living wage, he said. The figures come from the alliance's latest Job Gap Study, conducted in 10 states, including Idaho.
Henry said a living wage allows a full-time worker with employer-provided health care to cover all basic expenses without factoring in things such as cellphones and Internet access.
The state's median household income was $45,489 in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Its median wage was $18.48, according to the government's Occupational Employment and Wage Survey.
The number of Idahoans competing for each living-wage job is staggering, Henry said, citing a ratio of 10 job-seekers to each living-wage job. That's a bigger gap than the national average, which puts seven people competing for each job that pays at least $15.
Two Idaho women told their stories of working for unlivable wages.
Robin Evans, a Grangeville woman who has three jobs totaling about 41 hours a week, said her family's $13,000 income keeps them perpetually behind on their rent, awash in medical bills and unable to build any safety net.
Maria Analco, of Burley, told of trying to support four children on $7.85 per hour processing potatoes, a job that often falls short of 40 hours. Her husband died five years ago, so she's the family's only wage earner.
"I wish things were different," she said in comments translated from Spanish by ICAN. "I wish that hard work would mean that I could support my family, but it doesn't."
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447