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Q & A with Rebekah Jordan Gienapp

Executive Director of the Workers Interfaith Network

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Rebekah Jordan Gienapp has a special understanding of the phrase "wage warfare."

In her role with the Workers Interfaith Network, Gienapp has devoted the last nine years to passing living-wage ordinances in Memphis and Shelby County. Now a state bill sponsored by state senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Representative Glen Casada of Franklin could threaten local living-wage ordinances. If approved, HB3386/SB3276 would prohibit local governments from mandating a mininum wage or requiring private businesses to provide health-insurance benefits and family-leave requirements.

We sat down with Gienapp to learn more about what constitutes a living wage and what threatens its existence in Memphis and Shelby County. — Hannah Sayle

Flyer: How is a living wage determined?

Gienapp: Living wage is tied to the poverty line. Minimum wage is what the federal government requires that everyone be paid, but it's not enough to get by on. Living wage is enough for the very basics here in Memphis — things like housing and groceries, but nothing for extras. There's not money to eat out or save money or pay off debts.

When did you get involved with the living-wage ordinance?

Almost nine years ago, we started campaigning the city council to pass a law where they would pay their own workers a living wage and also require the companies that contract with them to pay their workers a living wage. The city council passed that law in 2006. We went to the county commission, and they passed something similar in 2007.

Would this bill remove the living-wage ordinance for all city and county employees?

It wouldn't change what the city and county could pay their own employees, but it would remove the living-wage requirements for city and county contractors. We're talking about workers seeing as much as a 40 percent pay cut all the way down to minimum wage. It affects the people who clean city hall, perform security services, do landscaping, or workers on construction contracts.

Why should contracted workers be within the purview of local government?

Local government should be creating decent, quality jobs. Those are companies that are getting subsidized by the taxpayers, so by requiring them to pay a living wage, we're making sure that they're not paying employees so little that they have to work two jobs or get public assistance to make ends meet.

What is the likelihood of this bill passing?

Workers have been facing bills like this every year in the legislature, but it's become more of a threat in recent years in terms of one actually passing. The makeup of the legislature has changed, and unfortunately there haven't been as many legislators who consider standing up for workers' rights part of what they do.

why this strong push to repeal living-wage ordinances?

Casada has said that this is too burdensome for businesses, but when the living-wage ordinances were debated at length, there weren't any businesses that came forward to complain about them. He's trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist. Whenever I hear Casada talk about this bill, it's always in a theoretical kind of way.

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