The Kentucky House and Senate recently passed, and Gov. Matt Bevin signed. several bills they referred to as “priority legislation” to show that they were serious about having full control of our state government.
Some of those priorities included a so-called right-to-work bill and a repeal of the prevailing wage on public construction projects. Leaders couched such items as “opening Kentucky for business” and as “economic growth” drivers. But neither policy is really a driver of economic growth and they are morally wrong, as well.
Research from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy shows wages are roughly $1,500 lower in right-to-work states, and promises of job growth from the policy are particularly hollow. A repeal of the prevailing wage needs no research to show it will lower wages and often encourages out-of-state companies to take bids away from Kentucky workers.
Last Saturday, I joined several hundred union supporters at the Capitol as we made ourselves heard by our elected representatives who were meeting in that rare weekend session. The bills were rushed to the floor out of committee Wednesday when opponents were not given proper opportunity to voice concern.
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Purposely lowering the wages of workers is something as old as the Bible itself, as Deuteronomy 24:14-15 notes. “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needed laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.”
Just as it was then, policies like House Bills 1 and 3 are withholding the rightful wages of workers, whether they still toil in Kentucky’s fields or have moved on to other areas, such as factories and schools. Lower wages for working families can lead to a host of issues. Namely, they cannot provide for their families like they once could.
When that happens, it adds additional burdens to churches, which are sought after to help make sure families do not end up homeless, hungry or without their needs met. While our churches are happy to take care of the poor and the sick, as Jesus commands, it is morally wrong for that responsibility to be pushed to churches because businesses are not paying fair wages to their workers.
There are several things our leaders can do to reverse these harmful policies when they return to Frankfort in February.
They can pass Senate Bill 33, which would increase our state minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and our state tipped minimum wage to $4.90 an hour by 2020. It would also allow local governments to set higher minimum wages, if they so chose. Raising the minimum wage is a great way to help workers meet basic needs.
Additionally, House Bill 76, the “ban the box” legislation, would limit employers from initially asking about someone’s criminal history on a job application. Currently, too many workers are ignored as candidates for jobs they are qualified for despite having already gone through rehabilitation.
There are several other issues our leaders should turn their attention to: equal pay for equal work, pregnancy protection for workers, paid family leave, as well as others too numerous to list here, that would actually help economic growth as well as be on firm moral standing.
It is not too late for our elected officials to change course to help working families. Those who are not willing to do so should heed the words of James 5:1-4: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
The Kentucky Council of Churches is holding Prayer in Action Days at the Capitol Annex every Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. through March 14. Focusing on issues of moral concern and prayer for our government; these events are open to the public. Learn more at www.kycouncilofchurches.org.
The Rev. Donna Aros is pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Frankfort and a board member of the Kentucky Council of Churches.