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Originally published Thursday, November 22, 2012 at 4:01 PM

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Op-ed: Consider retail workers’ pay on Black Friday

An engaged consumer is a powerful force when it comes to how employers treat their workers, according to guest columnists LeeAnn Hall and Will Pittz.

Special to The Times

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THANKSGIVING is a most American of holidays. Few occasions blend belt-busting feasts and doorbuster sales into one convenient package.

But Thanksgiving also exemplifies our country’s spirit of cooperation, gratitude and altruism. It is one of the few times we get to step back and appreciate all that is good in our lives.

That is, if you’re not too busy working three poverty-wage jobs.

For many of us, a fundamental American value — that hard work should earn you an honest living that pays enough to provide for your family — has proved to be a myth.

The Alliance for a Just Society has calculated for more than a decade how much an individual needs to earn to meet life’s basic needs.

This concept is called the living wage, a no-frills, fiscally conservative study of the cost of housing, transportation, health care, child care and taxes, without public assistance.

According to our most recent findings released Friday, a single individual with no children in Washington needs to make $14.81 an hour ($16.19 in King County) just to make ends meet. A single mother with two children, meanwhile, needs to make $27.14 ($31.28 in King County). In Washington state, the minimum wage is $9.04.

If your Thanksgiving travels took you through Sea-Tac Airport, many of the workers who helped you on your journey — by transporting your bags and fueling your planes — don’t earn a living wage to support their families.

And if you plan on scooping up some deals at Walmart on this Black Friday, you will be doing so as Washington’s workers at one of the world’s richest companies are expected to participate in a national protest strike.

Walmart is secretive about its wages, but a recent discovery by the Huffington Post of an internal document reveals that new employees nationally start at $8 an hour and, on average, can go on to make $10.60 an hour after six years. (Walmart workers in Washington are paid our state’s minimum wage.)

The gaping disparity between Walmart and living wages is shocking enough, but that is compounded when taking into account the fact that Walmart typically does not sponsor health insurance or other benefits. Our living-wage numbers assume employer-provided health coverage.

Ultimately, why should shoppers here care? Despite working for an employer that pulls in $15.8 billion in annual profits, Walmart workers collectively are the largest recipients of food stamps in the country.

And, according to a state Department of Social and Health Services report, Walmart ranks first in the number of employees who receive state assistance for their health care, with $1.4 million in public funds spent monthly to cover employees and their dependents in Washington.

That’s right. The people of Washington are essentially subsidizing a business model that dramatically underpays its workers. Most would agree that using taxpayer dollars to pad a company’s profit margins is not how our scarce public resources should be utilized.

What can you do about this? First, understand that an engaged consumer is a powerful force.

If you like shopping at a particular store, great. But when you, as a consumer, are made aware of problems with the way that store does business, you have a choice. You can choose to shop somewhere else, like Fred Meyer, which provides full family medical benefits and a reliable pension for its workers.

Or, you can demand change. If a customer asks for a certain kind of cauliflower, the customer will get that cauliflower.

Talk to the managers. Let them know what their customers want.

There are many benefits to society when people earn living wages. The cost of community services go down. Consumer spending increases, creating an economic ripple effect that benefits the entire state. Crime and homelessness decrease.

In this land of opportunity, an honest living should provide enough to make a living. Support those who still believe in that most American of ideals.

LeeAnn Hall, left, is executive director of the Seattle-based Alliance for a Just Society and Will Pittz is executive director of the Washington Community Action Network.

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