Bill is a 69-year-old man who worked hard for many years as a self-employed roofer and raised his three children by living frugally and carefully managing his limited income. In his early 60s, health problems forced him to give up his roofing business. Desperate for employment, he took a job with a company in Cleveland delivering caskets to major cities around the state of Ohio. On a typical day, he gets up at 3:00 a.m., drives 35 minutes to the factory, loads caskets on a truck, spends about 7 hours delivering them to funeral homes around the state, and arrives back home in the afternoon. For this, he is paid $12.00 an hour with no benefits or health insurance. It costs him almost one hundred dollars a month in gas and tolls just to get to work and back home. He does get two weeks paid vacation and uses his long hours in the truck listening to Christian radio stations. During the pandemic, he continued to work but had to take unpaid time off to care for his wife, a retired school teacher, who became seriously ill. Getting ever further behind financially and angry with the way his boss treats him, he looked at many other job openings caused by the pandemic, but at his age could not find anything better. Bill is trapped in a challenging situation with a job he cannot quit that still leaves him and his wife living below the government poverty line.
According to government statistics about 2.7% of Americans usually employed full time are classified as working poor. Among part-time workers, 9.8% are living below the poverty line. They are part of what is called the “precariate,” a social class of underpaid workers who live constantly in precarious circumstances.
The Compendium states that a “just wage is the legitimate fruit of work” and that “remuneration is the most important means for achieving justice in work relationships.” A just wage enables a worker to “cultivate worthily his own material, social, cultural and spiritual life and that of his dependents” (n302). The simple agreement between employee and employer on pay is not sufficient to qualify as a just wage, which “must not be below the level of subsistence” needed by workers. “Natural justice precedes and is above the freedom of the contract” (ibid).
For over a century, the American bishops have argued that fulltime workers have a right to a “just wage” that allows them to provide a “dignified livelihood” for their family. They have also supported universal health care, unemployment compensation and paid sick leave designed to enable workers and their families to lead a full and dignified life.
Does the Catholic teaching on the ideal of a just wage influence my outlook on practical policies such as the proper amount of a mandated minimum wage?
About the Author
Fr. James J. Bacik has served as a priest of the Diocese of Toledo since his ordination in 1962. He is a widely regarded theologian, writer, lecturer and pastor who served as campus minister and adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years. Fr. Bacik is an AUSCP member. Visit his website at frjimbacik.org.