The United States Congress passed an act on June 28, 1894, that the first Monday of each September would be set aside to honor workers.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s website describes Labor Day as a “tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”
A hot topic across the nation now is what it takes for those members of the working class to contribute to their own prosperity. To be able to afford the food, shelter and education needs of themselves or a family. What is the living wage for people in Montana?
In 2006, Montana added an annual cost-of-living adjustment to its minimum wage. And every year since the minimum wage has increased according to the Consumer Price Index.
In January the wage increased to $7.90 an hour.
In 2012, according to a report from the Montana Department of Labor and Industries, 12,300 people — or about 2.9 percent of the workforce — were employed for $7.90 or less.
A general guideline, for anyone looking to rent, is to not spend more than 30 percent of your income on housing.
For any of the 12,300 minimum wage workers in Montana who followed those guidelines while looking to rent a two-bedroom apartment, that would mean 69 hours of work each week, according to USA Today.
But for the average person there is only 40 hours in a week during which to make a living if they want any chance at having a life outside work, Sandi Curriero Luckey, communications director for the Montana State AFL-CIO, said. And Luckey thinks it is essential to give those workers the most bang for their buck.
“There's no question, minimum wage does not earn people enough money to pay for the basic necessities of life,” Luckey said.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's living wage calculator, the living wage for a sole provider in a family of two adults and two children is $16.61 an hour.
And according to a December 2013 job gap study by the Alliance for a Just Society and the Montana Organizing Project, there are eight job seekers in Montana for every projected job opening that provides a living wage.
“Montana’s total employment is dominated by low-wage and part-time industries,” the report reads. “Retail Trade occupations offer an average annual salary of $25,319, and Accommodation and Food Service occupations have an average annual salary of only $14,941, both below the annual living wage needed for even a single adult.”
Help around Helena
Brian Johnson, executive director of United Way of the Lewis & Clark Area, said the organization is working with community partnerships to close the gap between poverty and living wage.
“You have to be on top of your game, you have to be pretty smart to live on minimum wage,” Johnson said.
And by smart, Johnson said he meant they have to make horrible tradeoffs, like elderly on fixed incomes choosing between food and medicine.
But it doesn’t just affect seniors, it touches children and middle-aged people as well.
“The issue of living wage affects people in every generation,” Johnson said.
There are non-profit and government organizations that work to ease the needs of people who find themselves in a situation where they have to make tradeoffs.
The YWCA, for instance, runs a toiletries pantry that distributes toiletry items to anyone who needs them.
When the organization first opened it a few years ago, YWCA Director Kellie Goodwin McBride said, they expected mostly the unemployed or homeless to take advantage of it, but that’s not what happened.
Instead, the pantry was used mainly by people who were working and housed, but couldn’t afford to keep eating through the next paycheck and still buy shampoo.
The group of people who skirt that border of being able to afford to live is more common in Helena than people might expect, McBride said.
“Everybody knows somebody who is using it, you just don’t know that you know,” she said.
“It’s prevalent, but it’s well hidden,” McBride said.
Across town at the Helena Food Share, about 5,000 pounds of food are given away each day, Dana Friede, communications director for the food share, said.
The food share doesn’t limit its distribution to people below a certain income, or to citizens who qualify for specific program. As a result, Friede said the distribution center sees people from all walks of life come for food, including families who have a source of income, but are having trouble making ends meet.
It’s a humbling environment for the workers and volunteers, Friede said, because it’s possible that unforeseen circumstances could send anyone down to the food share.
And while Friede didn’t have an answer for a better way to help the 1,038 households who access the food share in July, she said if there was a way for more people to make a living wage, it would definitely cut back on the number of people walking through their doors.
“It’s difficult, I think, to see so much need in our own community,” Friede said.