We propose that the Rockland City Council consider a living wage — of at least $15/hour — to take effect soon, perhaps in January 2020.

The people of the state of Maine get it. It was wonderful when we voted for raising the state minimum wage. But it’s not enough. The current minimum wage in Maine is $11/hour for non-tipped workers, and $5.50/hour for tipped workers. In January 2020, the state minimum wage will go up to $12/hour, with any increases from then on tied to inflation. This is so much better than the federal minimum wage, which is a paltry $7.25/hour. But do we really want to keep forcing people who are working full-time to try to survive on about $24,000 per year?

We suggest that the money is available. Many Rockland businesses have been bringing in record sales for the past few years. The 2018 sales figures from the “Rockland area” (all of Knox County except Camden, Rockport, Hope and Appleton) set a stunning record: consumer retail sales totaled nearly $427 million, a 3.3-percent increase from 2017, also an excellent year for local businesses.

Some of that extra money should belong to the workers whose labor makes these businesses possible. These workers need to live and raise children in this community, along with the wealthier people and the business owners (many of whom do not live in Rockland proper). Many business owners will say that they don’t have enough to pay the workers more, but one wonders then, ultimately, what is a business for? Why have a business if it doesn’t adequately support the people who work for you? When we speak about creating a more equitable society and community, we need to think about ways to spread the resources and money around. It seems to us that despite what they may say, many of these businesses would be able to find a way to pay workers better, particularly in this time of record sales.

It’s possible there will be less resistance to a living wage than one might anticipate. We’ve been heartened to see that among the downtown Rockland business community, several proudly display a sign saying, “This Business Supports a Living Wage.” Further, some downtown businesses make it their policy to pay at least $15/hour to all their employees, yet aren’t advertising that fact to the public.

People frequently fret about how Rockland employers can’t find workers, yet, at the same time, there’s the sentiment that we need to bring in more jobs. How can it be that we need more jobs, if local people already aren’t filling the jobs that are available? It seems likely that at the heart of the “can’t find enough workers” issue is that often those employers don’t pay enough, offer benefits, provide steady hours, or provide a good working environment.

A higher wage puts more money in people’s pockets for them to pour back into the local economy or to save. Studies from the Economic Policy Institute looking at raises in wages have shown tremendous benefits to local economies, quality of life, and even the businesses themselves — with lower turnover and increased employee satisfaction. We found that it was difficult to calculate what a healthy living wage tied to cost of living in Rockland should truly be. Various online living wage calculators have different estimates for the cost of living in Knox County, but we think $15/hour, about $30,000 per year for a full-time job, is a sound target for the time being.

Along with the living wage ordinance, we would need to make sure that employers don’t simultaneously cut hours. This is what recently happened at Amazon, which, under worker pressure and looking for good press, announced they would pay all workers a minimum of $15/hour. Amazon then turned around and cut workers’ hours, meaning that many of them are now struggling just as they were before. While our local employers are small compared to Amazon, the struggle is the same: employers say they can’t afford more for labor, but meanwhile the laborers, who make the company profitable, are struggling to get by.

One of the great things about a higher wage for Rockland is that it would bring great press for us. And many people are excited to buy from somewhere when we know the people who work there are paid a wage they can actually live on. It seems possible that a well-publicized $15/hour wage would make visitors and locals alike more willing to support Rockland businesses, knowing that they are supporting the people who work there.

We’re calling for Rockland to think about what an ambitious living wage could do for our small city: bring in more money and more workers and make the city a more affordable place to live. Of course, we’d love it if other towns besides the “Lime City” took this on as well. People everywhere deserve to have enough to get by on.