Justice and Fairness in Action

A recent article in The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, highlighted the housing challenge for low income workers.  A study found that the average wage needed to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Nashville is $13.75 per hour ($16.35 for a two-bedroom).  This $13.75 per hour is not only about double the minimum wage, but is $1.94 per hour greater than the state average income.  This housing difficulty for low wage workers is just one of the symptoms of our out-of-whack income inequality in this country.

But one man is doing something about it.  Dan Price, founder of Gravity Payments, a credit card processing firm based in Seattle, recently announced a startling new wage structure for his company.  Last month, Mr. Price set out on a plan to raise the salary of every employee to a minimum of $70,000 per year.  This, at a company where the current average salary is $48,000 per year.  You can read about his plan here.

How does he intend to pay for it?  For starters, Mr. Price is cutting his salary from nearly $1 million per year to $70,000.  In the New York Times article, he is quoted, “The market rate for me as a C.E.O. compared to a regular person is ridiculous, it’s absurd.  As much as I’m a capitalist, there is nothing in the market that is making me do this.”  And that is the beauty of what Dan Price is doing.  Mr. Price is breaking free from the injurious notion that drives American business – what is the lowest possible wage I can pay my workers in this market?

Did you notice the word “market” in the quotes of Mr. Price?  The market rate for CEOs is ridiculous – his words, not mine.  And the market is not requiring him to raise salaries.  He is actually going against what the market requires.  Why?

What is not reported in the NY Times piece is that Mr. Price is a believer who is interested in “granting justice and fairness” to his workers and maybe a little generosity thrown in.  He recognizes that in the Seattle area, a salary below $70,000 per year makes it difficult to buy a house or save for your children’s education.  He wanted to do something about the financial pressures workers face when hit with a rent increase or unexpected car repair or nagging credit card debt.

I salute Mr. Price.  I hope his example will be followed by others.  He has his critics to be sure.  But in my opinion those critics are narrow-minded and missing the biblical admonition to “grant your workers justice and fairness.”

Justice and Fairness in the Workplace

Now let’s turn to the big picture of “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you have a Master in heaven” (Col 4:1).  We have a big problem in this country with income inequality.  We have all seen the statistics that compare executive pay to the lowly wages of the worker bees.  And I will not belabor the point except to summarize that the low end of the economic food chain in this country is grossly underpaid compared to what they contribute.  Free-market capitalism in our wage structure – that is, paying the lowest wage possible that the market will support to hire my workers – is one of the principle drivers of this inequality.

But the biblical position is not free-market capitalism in the wage structure, it is treating workers with justice and fairness.  As believers, we should be supporting wage scales that people can live on.  Wages that can support a family.  Wages that reflect workers sharing in the harvest.

The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, “It is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.”

Today’s workers are not sharing in the harvest.  Instead they are captive to a market-driven pay scale.  What do I mean by market-driven pay?  Let me give you a story from my own work experience.

Several years ago, in the days of top secret salaries, a new coworker of mine who had just joined the company leaked the fact that he was making about $10,000 per year more than I was.  His work experience was actually a little less than mine, so it caused some angst on my part.  I approached my boss about the income disparity.  My supervisor was very straight-forward, “Jay, we can pay you less because you are already here.  We have to pay the other guy more to get him to leave his former employer.”

This is market-driven wages.  There was no thought for fairness.  There was no concern for loyalty.  There was no consideration for the fact that I had discovered millions of dollars of oil and gas for the company without sharing in the harvest.  Now, I am not sharing this story for your sympathy.  I am well-paid and we have been blessed to raise a family of five children on my salary.  I am sharing this to illustrate the concept.  And its implementation is more painful the farther we go down the wage scale.

I have also observed this corollary to market-driven wages in the workplace.  A market downturn causes a company to lay off workers.  The remaining employees start working 50 and 60 hour weeks to keep the company afloat.  The message from management to the overworked staff is “just be grateful you still have a job.”  Then, when things turn around and the market improves, the company realizes that they can maximize their profits in the rising market by not hiring the new workers they need but just keep riding their current employees to keep working harder.  It is not a picture of justice and fairness.

Or how about the current minimum wage discussion.  When I was in college, I worked a minimum wage job as a groundskeeper.  By my last year in school, the minimum wage was $2.65/hr.  It sounds pretty small now.  But by comparison, my college costs (tuition and room and board) were around $2500/year.  Now the comparable college cost in 2015 at a four-year public school like I attended is about $19,000/year, a 660% increase.  So maybe we should increase the current minimum wage to a 660% of the $2.65 that I was making then so that college students could actually afford to pay for their education.  Oh by the way, that would be a minimum wage of $20.14/hr, a far cry above the current and dismal wage of $7.25/hr.

Because of our marriage of American-style capitalism with American-style Christianity, I think we sometimes fear association with the liberal camp if we support increased wages for workers.  But this is not a liberal vs. conservative issue.  This is a justice and fairness issue.  And the Bible makes it quite clear where we are to land.

With Justice and Fairness

“Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you have a Master in heaven” (Col 4:1).  Our last post covered the responsibility of workers to do their work heartily.  Today, we look at the flip side; the responsibility of employers to treat their employees with justice and fairness.

In our rush to join American-style capitalism with American-style Christianity, we are quick to defend a business’s right to maximize their profit.  We are quick to point out the requirement that “he who doesn’t work, shouldn’t eat”, highlighting the need for a diligent workforce.  But the responsibility to treat the workforce with justice and fairness may be one of the most overlooked teachings in the New Testament.  There is a big picture aspect to this question that we will tackle later.  But for now, let’s focus on the individual application.

We all are employers on some level.  You may own a business with a large staff.  You may be a homemaker who hires house-cleaning help or a lawn service.  Or it may be as simple as paying someone to cut your hair or babysit your kids.  The point is that we all have opportunity to treat those who serve us with justice and fairness.

Somewhere along that line, we have gotten the idea that the Christian goal is to pay as little as possible for these services.  But does that really fit the justice and fairness admonition?  I am not saying we should overpay for poor service or inferior products.  But there is also no reason to think that we always have to “win” the bargaining game.  It is somewhat of a zero-sum situation.  If I always have to “win”, then someone else is most likely “losing”.

Businesses are not in business to give their stuff away below cost.  Service providers are not in business to take home as little pay as possible.  As believers, we have a responsibility to pay what is fair.  Do you agree?  Or do you think that there is no moral imperative to how much we pay for our services?

Now this is not about being wasteful with your cash.  This is not an endorsement for spending above your income.  Each of us has a personal financial limitation and as we view our supply as being God’s gift and choice, we also hold it as God’s tool to be used to honor Him.

Ask yourself if God’s Word is giving you something new to consider.  Because in the area of paying those who serve us, there is a danger to let market forces – what is the absolute least I can pay in this market for this service – override our biblical responsibility to treat those who serve us with justice and fairness.