Sun leaves Hobby Lobby out of its timely higher-wages story

Sun leaves Hobby Lobby out of its timely higher-wages story July 7, 2014

So, are there any Hobby Lobby stores in the greater Baltimore area?

Yes, it appears that there are. Hold that thought for a moment, because I would like to connect two dots that I just read in two different newspapers.

We will start with an op-ed page column by Ross Douthat of The New York Times. Yes, it’s an editorial column — but I am interested in his timely news hook. The headline: “A Company Liberals Could Love.”

Douthat’s goal is to note that there are companies that model what can be called communitarian, if not old-guard “liberal,” values when it comes to policies that impact their employees. The leaders of some of these companies — whether they are religious or not — would even say that they are making choices that reflect their moral worldviews, even if that would appear to slice some dollar signs off their bottom line. Thus, Douthat writes:

One such company was hailed last year by the left-wing policy website Demos “for thumbing its nose at the conventional wisdom that success in the retail industry” requires paying “bargain-basement wages.” A retail chain with nearly 600 stores and 13,000 workers, this business sets its lowest full-time wage at $15 an hour, and raised wages steadily through the stagnant postrecession years. (Its do-gooder policies also include donating 10 percent of its profits to charity and giving all employees Sunday off.) And the chain is thriving commercially — offering, as Demos put it, a clear example of how “doing good for workers can also mean doing good for business.”

Of course I’m talking about Hobby Lobby, the Christian-owned craft store that’s currently playing the role of liberalism’s public enemy No. 1, for its successful suit against the Obama administration’s mandate requiring coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and potential abortifacients.

OK, there is no need to repeat the rest of his argument here. Like I said, what interested me was the hard-news hook in that passage, especially the reference to higher wages in the current service-industry marketplace.

Why do I bring this up?

Well, the business section at the newspaper that lands in my front yard had an interesting local feature this weekend on the timely topic of fair wages, in an era of debates about the minimum wage. Here’s the top of that Baltimore Sun story:

Juggling the rising cost of textbooks, tuition, food and rent is a little more manageable now for rising University of Maryland, Baltimore County senior Keyerra Jeter, thanks to a June 1 raise in starting pay to $9 per hour for Gap Inc.’s 65,000 employees. …

Gap Inc. brands — Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Piperlime, Athleta and Intermix — are among a growing group of major U.S. retailers now paying more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour for entry-level employees. Others include Ben & Jerry’s, Costco, Ikea and Whole Foods. Paying workers more reduces turnover and hiring costs, the businesses say, because it makes for happier employees who stay longer and better serve customers.

In Maryland, the companies are ahead of the gradual curve of a new law that will raise the state minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by July 1, 2018. In January, the current minimum of $7.25 — defined by state and federal law — will increase by 75 cents to $8 per hour, with periodic increases scheduled through 2018. Companies that fought the increase said increased overhead costs would lead to shuttered storefronts and job losses. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce said businesses in a struggling economy can’t afford more overhead.

Like I said, this is an interesting topic. And the last time I did the math, $15 an hour is considerably higher than $9 an hour.

So, is it relevant that there are Hobby Lobby stores in the region covered by the Sun?

Let me be clear: There is no reason that the Sun team had to include Hobby Lobby in this timely trend story. However, there are a number of good reasons to do so, starting with the obvious news hook of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that touched on a related issue — benefits.

The fact that the culturally conservative owners of Hobby Lobby fall, on the wage issue (and several other key benefits), into this progressive mix is rather interesting. How does this affect the work inside the chain’s stories? Open-minded readers might want to know.

The story does offer some interesting insights for why companies should lean this direction:

David Cooper, an economic analyst for the Economic Policy Institute, said companies paying more before they are required by law get to choose from the “pick of the litter” when it comes to hiring.

“What you’re seeing with these companies that are choosing to get out ahead of the mandated increases is that they’re recognizing that this is smart from a business perspective, because it will let them hang on to good workers, but it also allows them to attract more workers now before the wages go up,” Cooper said.

Is that true at these Hobby Lobby stores in the Baltimore area? And more:

The 3,000-strong nationwide network of businesses and executives, Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, said benefits of a wage raise can be seen by looking past the increased labor cost to the “long-term savings in the big picture.”

“We’ve found in practice, for most businesses, it’s customer-neutral and economically beneficial in many cases, and in some cases it means doing things a little bit differently,” said Alissa Barron-Menza, vice president of Business for a Fair Minimum Wage. “If you just look at the costs and look at where you’re going to have to reduce short-term, you’re not going to see the whole picture.”

The network includes major U.S. retailers such as Ben & Jerry’s, Costco and Organic Valley, though the majority of members are small businesses. Costco’s 10 Maryland locations start employees at $11.50 or $12 per hour — a uniform wage nationwide — according to an email from Pat Callans, Costco senior vice president.

In late June, Ikea became the latest major retailer to say it would raise its employees’ base wages, adding that the move is in anticipation of further U.S. expansion. Unlike Gap’s uniform nationwide pay, Ikea’s wages will vary based on the cost of living for a single person in each region. The furniture chain has promised no price increases in stores as a result.

Workers at 33 of Ikea’s 38 U.S. locations can expect higher wages on Jan. 1, when the measure takes effect, according to an email from the retailer. At the Ikea in College Park, 250 employees will earn at least $13.20 per hour next year, said manager Frank Briel.

Interesting. Well, $15 an hour is higher than $13.20 an hour, too.

Did anyone at the Sun even consider contacting Hobby Lobby? There is a strong hard-news hook there.

Just saying.

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